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Sides don't budge on boat slips

Supporters view the project as a tourism magnet. Critics see a pricey eyesore. Voters decide Tuesday.

By MIKE DONILA
Published March 11, 2007


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In a city that touts itself as a waterfront community, there are two competing sides that can't agree on just what that means.

One of them will claim victory Tuesday.

Clearwater leaders want voters to sign off on an almost $11-million project that features 129 floating concrete boat slips, a boardwalk, a promenade, parking renovations and a fishing pier near Coachman Park.

They say it's a project that could define downtown's future.

"We have a project that's going to generate activity 365 days a year at Coachman Park ... (and) it's going to generate upwards of $10-million in revenue that ... supports fire and police and libraries and parks and recreation," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "To me, this is a win-win situation for everyone."

The opponents, mostly led by Save the Bayfront, say it's a boondoggle just waiting to happen. They don't believe cost projections, contend the project will benefit only the wealthy and think that it will create an eyesore that would block the view along the waterfront.

Further, opponents say, the city is using downtown revitalization as an excuse to sell the boat slips to voters.

"They say Dunedin and St. Petersburg have redeveloped their downtowns because they have a waterfront marina, but ... they both had marinas for years before their downtowns were developed," said Anne Garris, chairwoman of Save the Bayfront. "Furthermore, Largo has done a good job redeveloping their downtown and they don't have any boat slips, so the two simply don't go together."

The slips are proposed for an area where the city charter requires that voters okay such development. A vote to support the plan would let the city build up to 140 slips on the north and south sides of the Memorial Causeway bridge. The city, though, plans to build only 129 because it doesn't think it can get state approval to build the other 11 under the bridge.

The project, city officials say, will enhance a downtown beautification project aimed at drawing visitors and residents with spending power.

If approved, construction would probably start in 2008 and wrap up a year later.

Both sides have invested thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars into their campaigns.

They've met in forums, posted Web sites and sent out scores of fliers - each accusing the other of misleading voters.

At one point, a letter sent by the mayor said taxes wouldn't be used. Though rental collections from boat slips are expected to pay most of the construction costs, $1-million generated from special district taxes would also be used. A few days later, Hibbard apologized, saying he meant residential property tax money wouldn't be used.

Save the Bayfront then sent out a flier claiming the city promised developers the slips.

The flier upset city leaders. The mayor called it a "blatant lie," pointing out that city residents would get first crack at the slips.

Another boat slip advocate - Citizens for a Beautiful, Active Waterfront - responded that the Florida Elections Commission was once asked to investigate Save the Bayfront. But the group failed to mention that the state dismissed the allegations.

Two nationally recognized marine builders helped craft the city's long-term construction and operational plan. Financing would be with 20-year bonds. In computing estimates, the city used higher-than-current bond rates and underestimated rental fees to produce a figure leaders say is fiscally conservative.

The city maintains that the operation will pay for itself and produce $9.6-million in profit during its 40-year lifespan.

Tuesday's decision has been a long time coming.

Save the Bayfront defeated a similar boat slip proposal in 2004, but that plan also included a parking garage and work at Coachman Park.

When the city later floated a slimmed-down plan, the opposition said it would support it if the slips were limited to south of the bridge.

City leaders said the project wouldn't be self-funded if slips weren't on both sides.

Initially, the City Council put the question on the November ballot, only to quickly remove it claiming the ballot would be too crowded. Further, city leaders said they wanted to hold more meetings with neighborhood associations and civic groups to talk about the project.

The delay also gave Save the Bayfront more time to fight.

A recent city-funded survey showed that a majority of Clearwater voters would support the slips. But city leaders aren't underestimating Save the Bayfront.

On one thing, both sides agree: The vote will probably be close.

For information

On the Web

- myclearwater.com

- savethebayfront.com

Q & A

The skinny on boat slips

Would the project make money?

Officials say the slips would pay for themselves and generate $9.6-million profit during its 40-year lifespan.

Would the slips be insured?

Yes. Right now, the city would be on the hook for only the first $500,000 in damages. That could change since the City is about to look into other insurance options. Clearwater also has a $22-million insurance reserve fund for use to repair city facilities that are damaged. The slips would be built to withstand Category 2 hurricanes.

Would the docks be secure?

The docks would have a security guard and the gated private slips would be locked nightly.

How much would it cost to dock a boat?

The city initially would lease 117 slips annually at $15.50 per foot per month. That price would rise by 25 cents per foot each year. The 12 "transient" slips and about 1,700 feet of side-tie moorings would cost boaters $2 per foot per day. That price would go up 5 cents per foot each year. The city would also have 800 feet of free side-tie mooring for daytime visits and special events.

[Last modified March 10, 2007, 21:28:47]


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