CLEARWATER - With its sprawling warehouses and chain-fenced scrap yards piled high with hubcaps and the twisted skeletons of broken-down cars, Clearwater Automotive's three-acre operation on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue doesn't mesh with the city's grand vision for an urban and sophisticated downtown.
A stone's throw from Town Lake, Clearwater's newest showpiece park, the junkyard makes for a lousy view that city officials would prefer to erase.
And so, in a complicated land swap set to be inked next month, the city is preparing to take over the property and a handful of smaller parcels nearby in hopes of luring a developer to help mop up the area, long regarded as an eyesore.
It is the latest maneuver in a long-range and multipronged effort to remake downtown. Despite concerns that petroleum seepage will likely swell the price for redevelopment, city officials can't wait to get their hands on the land.
"Our worst nightmare in downtown is this salvage yard," said city Economic Development Director Reg Owens. "It's a real prime redevelopment area, and we could have done nothing with this thing sticking in the middle."
All around, the city is taking bold - and expensive - steps to improve the landscape downtown. The $10-million Town Lake project wrapped up this spring and the new $20-million Main Library is set to open next year. The $64-million Memorial Causeway Bridge should be ready for traffic early next year and, several blocks to the east, a $4.3-million project will transform the 22-acre Glen Oaks golf course property into a park with lakes, a playground, soccer fields and a trail system.
On tap is a proposal to build a bayfront marina next to a retooled Coachman Park. And, near the downtown post office, Station Square Park is also in line for a facelift.
Meanwhile, separate developers are planning a $25-million condominium, office and retail complex on Cleveland Street and an $80-million high-rise with a hotel and condominiums between Osceola and Fort Harrison avenues, south of Drew Street.
It remains to be seen whether the projects will materialize, but City Manager Bill Horne believes the investments will eventually pay off.
"We have said all along that our downtown is the most underutilized area of the city," he said. "Its potential is very high if we make it a destination."
But, Horne conceded, the city still faces obstacles.
"We are not where we want to be," he said. "So we've got to make some things happen."
Signs remain that the job will be difficult.
Earlier this month, Bright House Networks announced a pullout from Clearwater offices at Drew Street and U.S. 19 in favor of a new regional headquarters in the Carillon development.
The decision came as a blow to city officials who had worked for the last year to keep the company in Clearwater. Among the disappointed were Mayor Brian Aungst, an employee of Bright House, who had pushed to find space for the company in Clearwater, according to Assistant City Manager Ralph Stone.
"We tried awfully hard," Stone said. "It really came down to a corporate decision that was out of our area."
Clearwater couldn't accommodate the company's need for a combination of office and warehouse space, but another major roadblock was location, more specifically, the city's distance from a major interstate.
It is a problem that officials acknowledge dogs the city, and especially downtown.
So far, the sleek CGI campus (formerly IMR Global) on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard has failed to change hands, 10 months after going on the market.
"I think there are some businesses that we will never be able to attract," said Horne. "I am not naive about that."
But Clearwater has succeeded in sparking residential development downtown, a move officials insist will attract more businesses.
Mediterranean Village, a townhome project surrounding Town Lake, has fallen behind schedule, in part because of extensive cleanup required to correct contamination from spilled dry cleaning fluids and arsenic.
Owens said the city has spent roughly $1-million in clean-up costs on the property over the last four years. Officials are hoping to avoid the same pitfalls with the Clearwater Automotive property next door, although they will acquire the land as-is, under the proposed swap with developers of the Clearwater Mall.
Under the deal, the city will pick up 3.85 acres downtown, valued together at $1.15-million, in exchange for a 2.42-acre parcel near the mall, valued at $1.2-million. The land near the mall houses a fire station, and the city has agreed to pay $5,000 monthly rent to the mall developers until it can move into a new station nearby.
Joel Kehrer, co-owner of the Clearwater Automotive site, declined to comment last week on details of the agreement.
"We're still in negotiations," he said.
Meanwhile, an initial review of the property shows some contamination is likely, and the city plans to spend a federal grant for $100,000 to determine the extent of the damage. Cleanup will be less expensive, officials say, if the land is redeveloped for commercial use rather than residential.
If all goes as planned, city officials expect the cars to be gone within two years and demolition of the buildings to begin soon after.
"You have to be patient," said Horne. "It's not going to happen overnight."