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Clearwater public art debate indirectly caused by former city employee's feud over a fire station

CLEARWATER — Call it the final revenge of the spurned employee.

A former city worker's anger at Clearwater helped lead to the current situation in which the city is spending more than $100,000 on a piece of public artwork that few members of the public might actually get to see.

It's a convoluted story, involving a chain reaction of events over several years.

It starts with Helen Davis, 76. She spent 20 years as a Clearwater city employee, mostly processing water bills. She says she felt mistreated and underpaid.

She left with a bitter taste in her mouth, retiring with a pension in 1998. There was no going-away party, no goodbye cake, she said. "They did me like dirt."

Davis planned to live out her life in her 920-square-foot home at 1140 Brownell St., just north of Court Street near downtown.

One day in 2011, a city real estate manager knocked on her door. He held plans for a new fire station that the city wanted to build. Part of the station was to go on her land.

The city said it offered Davis full market value for her property. At the time, the Pinellas County property appraiser pegged that at nearly $65,000, although properties often sell for more than what the appraiser calls "just market value."

Davis defiantly refused to sell. "I'll stay here 'til I rot," she said.

So the city ended up building around her. Her little house was bordered on three sides by a staff parking lot and a 30,000-square-foot fire station that has been under construction at 1140 Court St., just east of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

The new downtown fire station, which will double as the Clearwater Fire Department's headquarters when it opens in November, sits right on Court Street. The city would have liked to have built the station farther back from the road, but Davis' stance left them with a limited amount of land.

"Not having that other property resulted in us having to place the fire station closer to Court," Clearwater fire Chief Robert Weiss said. "It didn't give us as much frontage as we would have liked to have. We don't even have enough space in front to have a monument sign."

And that left no room for an outdoor sculpture when it came time to commission some public artwork for the $11 million station.

Clearwater requires municipal construction projects that cost more than $500,000 to dedicate 1 percent of the budget to public art. For that reason, many of Clearwater's municipal buildings feature artistic displays. For example, Fire Station 48 on Belcher Road features a sculpture made from 12 decommissioned aluminum fire ladders twisted to resemble a candle flame.

With no display space outside the new station, Clearwater's public art selection committee chose an art installation for the building's interior. And that led to a spirited debate among the city's elected leaders.

The chosen artwork, by Maine sculptor Aaron Stephan, will be a large orb made of 700 pounds of small, hand-blown glass spheres that will hang from the ceiling of the station's three-story entrance lobby. Titled Accumulate, it's intended to represent a burst of water draining from fire hoses being hung to dry.

A divided City Council voted 3-2 last week to approve the art.

"I don't think we need to spend $106,000 for a public work inside a building that very few people are going to see," said Mayor George Cretekos, who was on the losing end of the vote.

It's not clear how visible the artwork will be to passing motorists on the fast-moving road, especially during the daytime. It will be lit at night.

City Council member Bill Jonson, who also voted against the artwork, noted that the fire station's windows are tinted with reflective film and an exterior beam would partly block the view of the artwork from outside.

Penny for Pinellas sales taxes are paying for the fire station and the artwork. The City Council could have decided to spend the budgeted art money on public artwork elsewhere.

But most council members said they trusted that the artist would be able to make the glass-sphere installation work.

"This is a person that is very well known and a very strong artist," council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito said.

Here's the kicker: After the new fire station was mostly built, Helen Davis decided to sell her property to the city after all. The city bought it in July for $92,000.

"We had offered to buy the property initially, but she turned us down," said Cretekos, who voted against buying the land. "She cost us a lot of money because we had to redesign the entire station around her property."

The small house behind the fire station was demolished in September. The property will be used for more parking.

The station already has a larger parking lot than a typical fire station because it's the Fire Department headquarters and some training will be conducted there. The lot will also accommodate building contractors visiting the city's fire prevention office.

"We're expecting a lot of visitors," the fire chief said. "There will be a lot of traffic through there."

And why did Davis, the disgruntled former city employee, finally agree to sell? Was it the three-story station dwarfing her home? Was it the prospect of lights and sirens waking her up at any hour of the night?

Why sell now? "Because they paid me for it," she said.

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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