CLEARWATER — City officials were hoping to hold a long-anticipated referendum on Imagine Clearwater this November.
Then the coronavirus pandemic happened.
Now, officials say it’s unclear when voters will have their say on a key piece of the $64 million downtown redevelopment project.
The entire point of Imagine Clearwater is to revitalize the city’s long-dormant downtown. In order to do that, city officials have said Clearwater needs to bring more affluent, full-time residents to the area.
To that end, the city plans to build a sparkling new park and a refurbished library surrounded by new developments on three city-owned pieces of land: the former Harborview site on the corner of Cleveland Street and S Osceola Avenue; the old City Hall building on the north side of Pierce Street and Osceola, and a plot that was formerly owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the south side of Pierce Street and Osceola.
The city has put out a call for developers who might be interested in building mixed-use retail and housing projects on those properties. But the pandemic has delayed feedback from those firms, city officials say. The deadline for developers to express interest is next month.
If the charter-protected Harborview or City Hall sites are to be sold or leased by developers, it will require approval from Clearwater voters. But there won’t be any proposals ready for voters to consider by the fall. City officials say the vote won’t happen until 2021, at the earliest.
“We’re not going to be in a good position to make a November referendum," said Michael Delk, the assistant city manager in charge of the project. “That industry, just like us, is not sure when it comes to finances.”
On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council will have Imagine Clearwater on its agenda for the first time since three new council members were elected March 17. All three of the new council members — Mayor Frank Hibbard and council Members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker — have said they oppose significant parts of the project. In Clearwater’s city manager system, the mayor is one of five votes on the City Council, which dictates policy to city staff.
Hibbard has said the city should not be investing so much money on refurbishing the Clearwater Main Library. Those improvements are set to cost $6 million, including $3.6 million for a new rooftop terrace which will be used as an event space.
The new mayor also opposes the current layout of the re-imagined Coachman Park, which is slated to include a shaded, half-mile bluff walk; a scenic new garden and lake and a $14 million, 4,000-seat covered amphitheater. Hibbard has said the amphitheater, which is slated to rest near the center of the park, should be moved to the park’s far north end, closer to Drew Street.
Bunker, a strident critic of the Church of Scientology, which has its international spiritual headquarters downtown, did not respond to a request for comment. But during his campaign, Bunker said the city should not spend tens of millions of dollars downtown given the fact that it’s still unclear what the church plans to do with a recent rash of Scientology-connected downtown purchases.
Beckman has called for a smaller, less expensive amphitheater.
Delk noted in an interview that the pandemic has delayed Imagine Clearwater construction plans by about two months. The best case scenario, he said, is that construction work could start on the project by the mid-summer of this year.
Even so, the city is far along in its plans for the downtown redevelopment project, which were set in motion by the previous City Council. Coachman Park is past the 60 percent planning phase, and the re-imagined library is almost entirely planned, the assistant city manager said.
Hibbard said he’s willing to interrupt those plans in order to get the project right.
“I will not be pushed into making a decision because staff says we’re too far down the road,” the mayor said.
All of the different visions for Imagine Clearwater are colliding at a time of heightened financial uncertainty for the city. Last year, the city approved $30 million in new bonds to help pay for the Imagine Clearwater project. With a pandemic-induced economic downturn looming, that money could be harder to come by. How will the general revenue sources that will finance the bonds — franchise fees, utility taxes, etc. — look in the coming years?
Only time can answer that question, officials say.
Hibbard noted he was also hoping to get some funding for Imagine Clearwater from the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council. That body helps the Pinellas County Commission allocate bed tax money, a six-percent fee tacked onto the bill for every short term stay in the county.
With tourism in the county at a virtual standstill because of the coronavirus, Hibbard said there likely won’t be very much of that money to go around in the near future.
Even Council member Hoyt Hamilton, who supports the current vision for Imagine Clearwater acknowledged the coronavirus is certain to throw off the timeline for a project that’s been in the works since 2016.
"The pandemic is going to throw a little fly in the ointment as far as financing and timing,” Hamilton said.