CLEARWATER — Plans for building a new City Hall are moving forward, but not in the same location that the City Council had agreed upon last year.
In August 2020, the council agreed to move forward with building a City Hall and parking garage on the site where Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority currently operates its Park Street bus terminal. The authority is planning to build a new $34 million transit center on vacant land owned by the city on Myrtle Avenue and Court Street.
But to vacate its Park Street site and make way for City Hall, the transit authority was counting on a $25 million federal grant for its new facility. Officials got word last month that the grant did not come through.
On to Plan B.
City Manager Jon Jennings said he is preparing a financial package to present to the council by the end of February that will detail the feasibility of building a City Hall on the city-owned vacant land on Myrtle Avenue and Pierce Street next to the municipal services building and police headquarters.
“For me it’s the perfect opportunity to create greater efficiency and a government campus,” Jennings said in an interview earlier this month.
About five city departments have worked out of a sixth-floor office space in One Clearwater Tower since January 2019, when they vacated the 50-year-old City Hall on Osceola Avenue to free it up for the downtown waterfront revitalization plan. There are now about 45 employees working in the office tower and 275 at the municipal services building, according to communications director Joelle Castelli.
Officials have spent decades of discussions and thousands of dollars on studies about a new City Hall. When he took over as city manager on Nov. 8, Jennings said accelerating the project was one of his top priorities.
The transit authority now will be looking at other funding sources to pay for its new multimodal center, “because this is such an important project for our region,” according to public relations coordinator Stephanie Rank. Its proposed site on Myrtle Avenue and Court Street is directly south of the vacant lot now being considered for a new City Hall on Myrtle Avenue and Pierce Street.
The transit authority officially identified the property as its preferred site to build a new multimodal center in December 2016 and the City Council passed a resolution supporting the planning and design of the project.
Jennings said he believes the site could be better suited for affordable housing but that he is continuing discussions with transit authority CEO Brad Miller.
Mayor Frank Hibbard said he is willing to review the proposal for a new City Hall on the Myrtle Avenue and Pierce Street site but is not convinced it’s the best use of funds. Recent studies have estimated costs to be around $24 million but that number is almost certainly outdated, considering inflation and construction costs.
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Since city departments vacated the former City Hall in January 2019, the City Council has set up chambers for public meetings at the Main Library on Osceola Avenue. With minor renovations, Hibbard said space could be utilized in the library for government offices, saving the city millions.
“I’m against spending inordinate amounts of money when I don’t feel we need it,” Hibbard said. “I just think it’s a very small number of people that actually interact in our city buildings and I think that’s going to decrease over time with technology, so I just see (a new City Hall) as not being forward-looking and not as frugal as I would like to be.”
Jennings said a City Hall next to police and municipal services, which has departments like planning and code enforcement, will create a “one-stop shop” government campus for the public.
“It’s a necessary investment,” Jennings said. “We cannot work out of an office building with staff all over the place in order to have an efficient government.”
Council member Mark Bunker also said he’s willing to review the financial package for a new City Hall when it is finalized early next year. But he noted the convoluted history of the process.
“I’d be happy if we just pick a spot and do it,” Bunker said.