What to do with Clearwater's Harborview Center?

The 40,000-square-foot Winter’s Dolphin Tale attraction in the Harborview Center in downtown Clearwater attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, but many residents want the building to be demolished.
The 40,000-square-foot Winter’s Dolphin Tale attraction in the Harborview Center in downtown Clearwater attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, but many residents want the building to be demolished.
Published June 25, 2015


It's a mantra that's been repeated at a number of public meetings regarding the future of downtown Clearwater.

Knock down the Harborview Center, citizens are saying. Demolish it already. The view-blocking building perched on the bluff of Clearwater Harbor is a white elephant that ought to be bulldozed.

"Tear it down. Everyone agrees it has to come down. It's symbolic of everything that's wrong with our downtown and its waterfront," Jack Mortimer, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, recently said to loud applause at a crowded public forum.

But Clearwater officials are finding that it's not so simple. They're not in a rush to raze the city-owned Harborview for two reasons:

• They don't have a plan yet for what would take the building's place, if anything.

• They're reluctant to evict the building's sole tenant, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure. That's the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's popular exhibit of props and sets from its Dolphin Tale films. CMA doesn't have anywhere else to put the 40,000-square-foot attraction.

"The CMA has been a good partner for the city of Clearwater. To tear down the Harborview now with no plan is not being fair, it's not being responsible, it's not good government," Mayor George Cretekos said. "It's going to be at least a year before we have any idea what we're going to do there. And no matter what we do, it has to be approved by voters."

Nevertheless, the city is laying the groundwork to eventually empty out the 50-year-old building and take a wrecking ball to it. The aquarium has had an annual lease to occupy the Harborview — until last week, when the City Council voted to make it a month-to-month lease, with six months of notice required before ending the deal.

The city won't keep the Harborview around forever. The aquarium knows it will have to move its Dolphin Tale exhibit out of there at some point, but it wants to stay for as long as is feasible. CMA counts on that exhibit to generate revenue and to handle overflow crowds from the aquarium on Island Estates.

The aquarium gets 800,000 visitors a year. More than half of them also board a ferry or trolley to the Harborview exhibit.

"For us, this has been a godsend. It doubles our space and allows us to digest the crowds," aquarium CEO David Yates said. "Our hope is to stay in here until the day we move into an expanded facility."

The Harborview occupies prime property on the downtown waterfront. It's next to Coachman Park and the Clearwater Main Library. It's catty-corner from the Capitol Theatre.

The city bought the former Maas Brothers department store in 1994 and turned it into a makeshift convention center. It hosted trade shows and events for about 15 years, but it never worked that well.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The city closed it in 2009, saving $350,000 a year. It was due to be demolished before the aquarium brought in its collection of movie props and sets in 2011.

The plan was to eventually fold this stuff into a new, expanded aquarium downtown, but CMA recently changed its mind about relocating downtown. Now it's figuring out how to expand at its location on Island Estates. "Our goal is to have more space for guests and animals," Yates said.

The aquarium pays the city $3,750 a month in rent for the Harborview and is responsible for any necessary repairs and upkeep, according to the lease.

Once the Harborview finally disappears, what happens at the southeast corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue?

The options include turning it into parkland, bringing in some type of attraction, using the site for economic development, or some combination of those things.

Last year, the Urban Land Institute suggested tearing down the building and expanding Coachman Park, possibly with a skateboard park, interactive fountains or playground.

Ruth Eckerd Hall, which runs the downtown Capitol Theatre, has suggested razing the Harborview and building an outdoor amphitheater there.

Some residents, particularly those in the Water's Edge condo tower next door, are petitioning to turn the Harborview property into open parkland overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

Clearwater officials aren't ready to commit to any of those choices. They have only recently embarked on the process of creating a master plan for the downtown waterfront.

"Some people want a water view, and others want to see commercial development and an active waterfront," said City Manager Bill Horne. "If we take down the building and there's nothing to go in its place, it would be much more difficult to follow through if we want to put any kind of structure in that location.

"You have to be careful about creating a vista that will be very hard to change."

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