By JOHN MORTON
Tampa Bay Newspapers Correspondent
CLEARWATER — The city's business-incentive programs designed to provide grants to both property owners and potential tenants downtown finally gained approval from the City Council recently, but not before another version of what was once the unsuccessful Anchor Tenant Program was presented by the Community Redevelopment Agency.
"We've tried on every hat we could," Amanda Thompson, the agency's director, said of a $1 million program that has yet to assist a single entity since its inception more than a year ago.
Previous versions attempted to share costs between the property owners, tenants and the CRA and one even attempted to pair property owners with tenants.
Regarding property owners in the downtown core and Prospect Lake areas, this time the plan is first-come, first-served to the property owner who finds a tenant and it allows for reimbursement up to $250,000 for upgrades to become "restaurant ready."
The work would have to be completed within one year of receiving a grant, which the council would likely consider in February. The council will determine the amount granted regardless of the amount of a request.
The pre-qualification timeframe is Nov. 1 through Dec 1, and a business would have until March 1 to find a tenant. If a tenant later drops out the clock would stop and a six-month grace period would be applied for an opportunity to find a replacement.
Downtown Clearwater has been considered a risk for developers due to a lack of foot traffic and convenient parking, Thompson has said. Council members Hoyt Hamilton and Bob Cundiff expressed concerns that the incentive wasn't strong enough with the $250,000 cap, with Hamilton saying it should be "more to make a splash."
Said Cundiff, "The current plan is timid and not a help to the big restaurants that might want to come in. It's not aggressive enough."
Additionally, Hamilton thought its rules may be too rigid.
"My experience is, the more flexible the better the results," he said.
"Humans respond to deadlines. It's one thing to have a conversation, it's another to sign a form. To commit," she said. "We want them to get their application in early and know they're in competition."
The council voted 4-1 in approval of Thompson's plan with only Cundiff dissenting.
Cretekos, who was the only council member not to vote in favor of Thompson being hired earlier this year, said he's been impressed with her since and it was time to see if she can deliver on her plan.
"Let's give our director the opportunity to do what we tasked her to do," he said. "We'll know where we stand in a month."
Regarding the city's food and drink landscape, it has plenty of downtown breakfast and lunch spots but suffers from a gap of nighttime and weekend establishments.
Through incentives offered in a second program, leaders are hoping to attract tenants whose businesses are open nights in an attempt to keep downtown employees in the area for things like a happy hour. Meanwhile, a destination establishment like a micro-brewery would be ideal for attracting weekend guests.
New parameters call for a pre-qualification process to take place between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, and a business must be open within the CRA's downtown boundaries at least between 5 and 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Thompson settled on a plan that would reimburse those starting full-service restaurants 35 percent of their costs for building upgrades up to $100,000. They must sign a guarantee that they'll stay in business at least five years.
Bars without kitchens would be reimbursed 100 percent of the costs for improvements to the building, fixtures or furnishings up to $15,000 for one year or $30,000 for two years, paid out over two years for the latter.
"We realize they'll be mostly investing in equipment," Thompson said of tavern operators.