CLEARWATER — When voters in 2000 handily rejected a referendum to build along the depressed waterfront, developer Al Justice wondered if dreams of a vibrant downtown were gone forever.
He had spent decades bringing major projects — the Bank of America office tower in 1974, the now FrankCrum headquarters in 1998 — and wondered why more private investment wasn't following.
"It's always been a mystery to me," said Justice, now a consultant in North Carolina. "You've got one of the most beautiful waterfronts anybody has ever looked at, you've got all the beach activities just over the bridge. My God, what will it take to get somebody to wake up and take advantage of this?"
Retail stores in the once vibrant core started a slow migration out with the opening of Countryside Mall in 1975, the same year the Church of Scientology moved in, establishing its international headquarters here and buying the landmark Fort Harrison Hotel.
Since then, St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Tampa have all embodied the renaissance of American downtowns.
But not Clearwater, Tampa Bay's third largest city.
Now voters will decide again Nov. 7 whether to green light development on the waterfront, required for much of the $55 million Imagine Clearwater plan. The question is, can it transform downtown?
"Only by bringing new activity, new opportunities to that glorious waterfront that Clearwater is blessed with are you going to establish that kind of momentum to create this city that it has the destiny to become," Justice said.
Clearwater has unique challenges. The highway to bring in visitors is a congested 5 miles away. The bridge connecting to the beach was redirected away from downtown's Cleveland Street artery in 2005.
And Scientology has accumulated at least 68 parcels over 40 years, mostly all encircling downtown and mostly all for its private membership.
Anchor institutions with large footprints in a downtown, like hospitals or colleges, can offer a dependable influx of shoppers, residents and visitors, said Elizabeth Strom, associate professor in the University of South Florida School of Public Affairs.
But if investors don't feel the market will support their businesses, they are unlikely to take a chance.
"If there were any other institution that had this kind of presence downtown, it would be a real plus, but because of the nature of this institution's secretiveness, their insulation, their reputation — deserved or not — it is not drawing people in," Strom said.
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment.
American downtowns have undergone a revival over the past 15 years as more families and young professionals choose to live in urban areas, near where they work and play. Strom said downtowns are now cultural centers for arts, food and entertainment rather than the corporate bastions they were before the suburban flight of the 1980s.
That should play in Clearwater's favor, said William M. Rohe, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina.
"I think the boom in central city revitalization will continue for some time," Rohe said. "I mean Detroit is coming back in places. If Detroit can attract people to its downtown and Clearwater can't, something is going on."
The city's laser focus on downtown revitalization intensified a few years before the 2008 recession, said Geri Lopez, who spent 12 years as the city's economic development director before joining Manatee County government in 2016.
Downtown's main drag underwent an $8.9-million streetscape and stormwater improvement project in 2006 with the core transformed into a pedestrian-friendly venue with landscaped sidewalks and medians, public art, benches, bike racks and streetlights.
The architecturally impressive Main Library with views of the Intracoastal Waterway was built in 2004, a project approved in the same 2000 referendum where voters shut down larger private development. Then came a downtown marina.
"Downtown revitalization is really hard work and it takes a long time and there's no secret to it," Lopez said. Downtown landed the Water's Edge and Station Square condo towers before the economy tanked, but the city still lacks a residential heart to bring foot traffic downtown, and in turn, businesses.
Infrastructure improvements shook out differently in downtown Dunedin, three miles away, where streetscaping in the 1990s gradually expanded to areas outside of Main Street, transforming a barren area into a walkable town center. Businesses flocked downtown before the recession. So since the recovery began in 2013, a half-dozen residential projects have sprouted. The combination of business and housing has encouraged a trendy brew pub industry, resulting today in seven breweries within walking distance, according to Director of Economic Development and Housing Bob Ironsmith.
"If you create the right environment, the emphasis on walkability, streetscape connectivity, you'll get the businesses coming," Ironsmith said. "It's creating an environment where people want to interact and walk. These cul-de-sacs with pools in the suburbs are still for some people, but for a lot of other people they want to be in these downtowns."
Even longtime skeptics of waterfront development are hopeful Imagine Clearwater will be a turning point.
Anne Garris, former spokesperson for Save the Bayfront activist group credited with defeating the 2000 referendum, said she's embracing this plan. Imagine Clearwater will more than double the current greenspace, create terraces and enclaves for people to gather, and a web of trails and paths to replace a massive parking lot and sprawl.
A key difference is the 2000 referendum would have put the waterfront in the hands of private developers with a 99-year-lease. Imagine Clearwater keeps the waterfront public. Residential and retail development outlined for the City Hall and Harborview Center sites will have to return to voters for another referendum.
"This time, instead of the powers-that-be handing something down to us and asking us to approve it, this one was done with the input of every citizen who wanted to have input," Garris said.
After decades of decline, countless city efforts for revival, and an institutional landowner continuing to buy downtown real estate, the success of Imagine Clearwater also has symbolic weight.
Brian Aungst Jr., Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce vice chair of government affairs, said he sees the plan as key to overcoming the perception that downtown is dead. That commitment, he said, is what's needed to attract the residential projects.
"I think there's still hope for that to occur, but it's got to happen now," said Aungst, whose father was mayor from 1999 to 2005. "I honestly believe this Imagine Clearwater plan is the best and last hope for a citizen, community-supported revitalization of downtown for everyone. If it doesn't happen... I know personally I'm going to move on."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.