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Hopes are high for Clearwater's North Marina area

Eric Reynolds of Brooksville, left, and Lucas Cowden of Palm Harbor launch Reynolds’ boat Monday at the Seminole Boat Launch in Clearwater. The property is part of the Urban Land Institute’s recommendations on revitalizing the area.
Eric Reynolds of Brooksville, left, and Lucas Cowden of Palm Harbor launch Reynolds’ boat Monday at the Seminole Boat Launch in Clearwater. The property is part of the Urban Land Institute’s recommendations on revitalizing the area.
Published Oct. 5, 2015

When Jamie Blackstone closes her eyes, she sees cafes and restaurants where she and her neighbors in the North Marina district could dine or listen to live music.

She envisions shopping at vibrant storefronts along N Fort Harrison Avenue before walking down to the Seminole Boat Launch to watch boaters set sail on the bay.

Then she opens her eyes and returns to an entirely different place.

"There's no life here, it's just a dismal area," said Blackstone, a six-year resident of the North Marina neighborhood. "But the area itself, the land, the location, is stunning and it has massive potential. This could be the diamond of this whole mainland area."

Clearwater officials are getting feedback from residents and consultants to create a master development plan for the 12 square blocks between the bay and Pinellas Trail with Cedar Street to the north and Eldridge Street to the south. This North Marina area is roughly a 13-minute walk from downtown, and with the boat launch and Francis Wilson Playhouse as landmarks, it has the potential to be a thriving district, said Clearwater senior planner Katie See.

The area is in a prime location with waterfront homes and the draw of the Seminole Boat Launch but is also peppered with blight with vacant, deteriorating buildings.

Creating a North Marina enhancement plan was one of several recommendations made in June by the Urban Land Institute, which the city paid $125,000 to give advice on how to boost downtown.

The ULI experts suggested the city keep its public boat launch but enhance the open space around the marina for boaters, residents and developers. This includes developing a "high and dry" boat storage facility, luring a waterfront restaurant and establishing a water taxi to shuttle visitors coming from the beach or downtown.

At the city's first two public meetings, run by Tampa consulting firm Stantec in August and September, several dozen residents, city leaders and businesses showed up to give their opinions.

Stantec had participants work in small groups to cut color-coded paper squares and tape them on to maps of the area, indicating where restaurants, business, green space and grocery stores should go.

As each group presented its plan to the crowd, the same suggestions were being repeated:

Bring restaurants to the waterfront. Make it easier for boaters to dock their vessels and walk to shops. Make good use of the vacant but historic North Ward Elementary School.

"There were that many opinions in one room and yet all of them were almost repetitious," said resident Shirlene Hammond.

Hammond, a real estate agent, said she moved to the neighborhood from Brandon to be on the waterfront, and although the view is breathtaking, the district leaves much to be desired.

There is no nearby grocery store for the 465 residents and just 11 businesses, including a bait shop, a salon and health clinic. Although crime has decreased significantly over the past decade, Hammond said drugs and prostitution are still an element along N Fort Harrison.

See, the city planner serving as project manager, said there used to be several grocery stores in the area after the bluffs attracted the first residents in the early 1900s.

The area thrived for a time off of Clearwater Bay Marine Ways, located on the site of the current Clearwater Marina. See said that business and commercial mullet fishing "gave life" to that area, but died down after Florida banned net fishing in 1995 to protect inshore sea life.

She said officials will evaluate all the feedback from the community meetings to develop a comprehensive master plan by the end of the year. The hope is to see the beginnings of a transformation within five years.

The city will be responsible for enhancements to the boat launch and possibly street lights and sidewalk improvements to connect the area to downtown.

But the success of the project, See said, will depend on private investment and businesses taking a chance on the neighborhood.

"There are a lot of opportunities that can happen in that area," she said.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.