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Downtown Clearwater gains ally

The nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Partnership will be a private sector advocate for redevelopment, lobbying voters as needed and working with City Hall.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published November 13, 2005


CLEARWATER - A group of energetic business owners and civic leaders are banding together to help shape the future of Cleveland Street, and for an idea of what's possible they are looking south to St. Petersburg.

The newly created Clearwater Downtown Partnership will become the private voice championing an urban renaissance for Clearwater, an ally with a City Hall pledging downtown prosperity one day.

"Who would have, eight, 10 years ago, said, "Hey, let's go to downtown St. Pete?' " said Joe Scanlon, a partnership executive board member. "You need to have the vision. St. Pete took their natural stuff and had the guts to do something with it. There's nothing stopping the same thing from happening in downtown Clearwater."

The nonprofit partnership will launch as a voice for downtown, advocating for redevelopment projects, even lobbying voters and elected leaders if need be, said Dwight Matheny, the chairman of the executive board.

Some of the city's major players downtown have already supported the group, which will be built similar to downtown partnerships now in place in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Developers proposing the city's major downtown residential projects are all backing the plan.

The Church of Scientology also conducted a study for the partnership, exposing basic needs for retail business in Clearwater's urban core.

The city, too, is excited about the new group. City Hall can inform but not advocate for specific projects. Without solidly organized advocates, key downtown referendums in 2000 and 2004 both failed.

The city is now gearing up for another downtown vote next March that would authorize the sale of City Hall land to a private developer proposing a mix of retail, restaurant and residential spaces.

The new partnership could play a vital role in rallying behind the latest referendum, City Manager Bill Horne said.

"If the private sector isn't really for it, then why would the citizens be for it?" Horne said. "For a long time, we've wanted to see the private sector get involved and step up, to work in concert with what the city does."

Matheny, who owns ArtGlass Studios on Missouri Avenue, said the partnership will recruit restaurants and retail outfits downtown, playing up business connections and local knowledge. It will work with developers hoping to build downtown, while keeping residents across the city informed.

Apathy may be the group's biggest challenge, Matheny acknowledges.

How, for example, will the partnership engage the interest of suburban residents in Morningside and Countryside, who already have a mall nearby, and who are used to driving to Tampa, Oldsmar or St. Petersburg to see a movie?

It must also attract buyers and visitors and merchants to a downtown that now primarily functions as Scientology and government campuses.

"The church is not going to go away," said Bob Clifford, a board member, who works for SunTrust Bank and is also a member of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce executive committee. "The population in Clearwater is going to have to learn to live with the Church of Scientology."

There is certainly room for growth downtown. According to property records, Matheny said an acre in downtown St. Petersburg sells for $1.2-million, whereas an acre in downtown Clearwater costs $687,000.

The partnership will hold an invitation-only party at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the lobby of the downtown Atrium Building. A larger meeting for the full membership, which Matheny said he hopes to grow to 500, will take place in December, he said.

CLEARWATER DOWNTOWN PARTNERSHIP

ITS MISSION: To be an independent voice of business and property owners in downtown Clearwater, bringing stakeholders together to develop, advocate and implement policies that build an exciting, vibrant and diverse downtown.

ITS FOUNDERS: Dwight Matheny, owner of ArtGlass Studios on Missouri Avenue and a former member of the Downtown Development Board. Howard Warshauer, a former West Palm Beach city commissioner who recently moved to Clearwater.

ITS MEMBERSHIP: Open to anyone with an interest in downtown. Membership fees range from $100 to $10,000. To learn more, check www.clearwaterdowntownpartnership.org

[Last modified November 13, 2005, 03:00:43]


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