After more than a century of Pinellas County government operating in downtown Clearwater, officials are considering a plan to move out and help attract private development to fill its place in what would be a transformative chapter for the city.
With aging buildings and about $146 million in upgrade costs if operations were to stay put, real estate consultants have recommended that the county sell or lease its 16 downtown properties to developers for retail, housing and hospitality uses to “activate and energize” the area. The deals would also create a funding source to help pay for a new consolidated government center at a yet-to-be determined location to replace the existing campus.
But the plan, outlined in a July 12 report by the firm CBRE, would require substantial investment by the county and approval by the Board of County Commissioners. Assistant County Administrator Kevin Knutson said staff will present the CBRE findings to commissioners at a work session on Aug. 31 to gauge whether they want to proceed.
The report follows years of study from multiple consulting firms that began analyzing the conditions of the county’s buildings shortly before the pandemic. They continued evaluating space needs after changes to workplace norms following COVID-19 and the expansion of remote work.
Most of the county campus was built in the 1970s, and its core building, the Pinellas County Courthouse at 315 Court St., dates to the early 1960s. The buildings are past their useful lives and create barriers for citizens and inefficiencies with services spread over various sites, the report states.
Consolidating would also allow departments to share resources and reduce their footprint. Accounting for decreased office space needs with remote work, CBRE estimated a new government center would require 317,500 square feet — about half of what is taken up today across the 16 downtown properties.
The new complex, envisioned as a three-building campus with parking, could cost between $264 million and $333 million, CBRE estimated.
The new site would house two dozen departments with about 1,300 employees, according to an earlier CBRE report. About nine county departments not currently located downtown, such as animal services and the tax collector’s office, would not be included in the consolidated campus.
Revenue from the sale or lease of the 16 downtown properties could net the county up to $83 million, while real estate taxes over 50 years could bring in $133 million, according to the analysis.
That would leave a funding gap of $47 million to $138 million, the report states.
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In a nod to the potential move, the county’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes a transfer of more than $40 million from reserves to the capital projects fund for “future facilities.”
During a presentation of the proposed budget last week, County Commissioner Brian Scott questioned the allocation, saying it’s a bad look for the county to put aside money for new buildings while residents face increasing tax bills.
”That just absolutely screams that the government has too much money,” he said.
But the funding the county pulls from the reserve can only be spent once, County Administrator Barry Burton said — it couldn’t apply toward lowering recurring expenses to support a tax rate reduction.
And regardless of the optics, the county has to plan to spend money on its facilities.
”This building was built in 1962 and has major issues,” Burton said, referring to the county headquarters at 315 Court St. “The choice about expenditures is really not a choice. It’s either upgrading current facilities to where people can work here safely, or is it cost-effective to make a different choice?”
Scott remains wary about putting money into a new county campus, but he’s interested in having the conversation, he said in an interview Monday.
He sees the same problems many others do with the current setup: inconveniently spread-out buildings and inefficient uses of space. He said he’s been told that the age and design of the Clearwater courthouse make seemingly basic tasks, such as replacing stained windows, far more cumbersome.
Whether Commissioner Rene Flowers could support a move would depend on the final price tag and how much the county could get for its current buildings, she said. But it’s worth looking into, she added, for the sake of making county services more accessible to residents.
To visit various departments today, she said, “you have to go across the street, where there are some properties over there, where you have services, and then you have to go to the courthouse and around the corner.”
Although Knutson cautioned that no decisions have been made about relocation sites, CBRE identified 13 potential locations. Some are private properties that are on the market, some are off-market sites and land the county government currently owns. The consultants highlighted the need to have a more centralized location in Pinellas to accommodate residents.
The proposal also notes a level of city involvement to ensure any future development on the properties fits with Clearwater’s vision. On Monday, Clearwater City Manager Jennifer Poirrier said she has not been briefed in depth about the county’s idea of moving out of downtown but that she’ll meet soon with administration to discuss the concept and what the next steps would be for the city.
However, former City Manager Jon Jennings previously said he spoke with Burton at length last year about the idea of redeveloping the county-owned sites and the potential the endeavor could have for transforming downtown.
The relocation talk comes as Clearwater has invested significantly in efforts to revitalize the struggling downtown. In June, the city opened the $84 million Coachman Park and downtown waterfront, which includes a 4,000-seat covered amphitheater, the first of its kind in Tampa Bay.
But revitalization of the surrounding downtown is more complicated. Since 2017, limited liability companies tied to the Church of Scientology have bought about 176 buildings and lots within walking distance of the waterfront and have kept most of them vacant, frustrating the city’s efforts.
Private development of the county’s 16 properties would greatly dilute the impact of the vacant properties tied to Scientology.
The CBRE report lays out a solicitation process that would include a global marketing campaign to attract developers while providing the county with a heightened level of control over future uses on the sites.
Any sales or leases, the report states, should come with a development agreement to formalize the commitments made in the proposals and ensure “the properties are developed as promised.”