CLEARWATER — After more than five years of planning, designing and talking about transforming the downtown waterfront, the City Council on Thursday gave the final approval needed to break ground on what has become an $84 million endeavor.
The council voted unanimously to approve a proposal from the construction company Skanska for Imagine Clearwater, which accounts for $55 million of the total cost. The milestone prompted a round of applause in the chambers.
The overall price tag — $20 million more than earlier estimates — was not lost on city officials. They urged residents to trust the effort aimed at bringing life to a downtown area that has stagnated for decades with empty storefronts, businesses that have come and gone, and inconsistent visitors despite its prized views of the Intracoastal waterway.
“Yes this is the biggest ticket item the city has ever endeavored into and I have every confidence in the world it’s going to turn out exactly the way we want it,” council member Hoyt Hamilton said.
Construction is expected to be completed in July 2023 on the park, which will include an outdoor amphitheater, a bluff walk, garden, lake area, gateway plaza, shade structures and water features.
Townhall meetings to gather citizen input for the Imagine Clearwater concept began in 2016. But Mayor Frank Hibbard said, for him, the urgency to do something about the city’s prized downtown waterfront, which is covered by an asphalt parking lot and few things for residents to do, is what prompted him to first run for office in 2001.
“This is a generational project,” Hibbard said. “You’re here to see it. This is the next step and we should not compromise on quality. That will be something that we regret.”
City officials have identified sources to pay for all but $7 million of the $84 million project, a gap that could be made up through requesting Pinellas County bed tax funding and state dollars. Other potential sources include revenue from the sale of any of the three city-owned parcels bordering the park and naming rights.
The journey to get Imagine Clearwater to groundbreaking was punctuated with debate. In April 2019, the council voted to replace a simple, uncovered bandshell that had been included in the design with an outdoor amphitheater and canopy over 4,000 seats.
Many residents criticized the move as a bait and switch tactic that would change a resident-friendly park into a tourist attraction. Three new council members were elected in March 2020, including Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker, whose campaigns included opposing the amphitheater. But they were outnumbered by a majority who supported keeping the feature as an economic driver for downtown, even with a price tag of about $15 million.
Both Beckman and Bunker on Thursday reiterated their support for the project as a whole and encouraged residents to do the same.
“While I might not agree with all the things that were decided early on, once they’re decided, I’m not sitting there sweating it,” Beckman said. “It’s done, we’re moving on, we’re going to make this the best park.”
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Several residents also characterized the project as the city’s chance to bring a renaissance to downtown in the way that St. Petersburg and Tampa have seen their city center’s flourish.
Patrick Raftery, a member of the parks and recreation board, said he hardly endorsed the entire design. But he supported the march forward as he said the renovation will benefit residents and be the lynchpin for development.
“Quite frankly, at some point, you need to say we need to go big or we need to go home, and none of us wants to go home, so let’s go big and get this thing started,” Raftery said.
No council member or citizen raised the long-term question hanging over downtown, which is the uncertainty over the Church of Scientology’s intentions for real estate it controls surrounding the bluff.
Between 2017 and 2019, limited liability companies tied to Scientology bought 100 commercial properties within walking distance of the city-owned waterfront. They are the same blocks where officials have hoped businesses would flock as a result of Imagine Clearwater. Today, most of the Scientology-tied properties remain vacant.
One resident described the project as a way to “take back our downtown.” Council member Mark Bunker didn’t initially name Scientology when he said “I think we know who we’re taking it back from.”
Later in the meeting, he clarified. Bunker noted he has spent many years thinking about the negative impacts Scientology has had on the area. But now he’s seeing change.
“What I’m feeling now is extreme positive feelings about the future of Clearwater,” Bunker said. “I’m hoping that we can put all this in the dust and turn the corner and take back downtown.”