tampabay.com

City envisions 'cafe society'

Clearwater aims to lure food and entertainment businesses to boost downtown traffic.

By MIKE DONILA
Published May 28, 2007


Work on turning Clearwater's main downtown street into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare is still months from wrapping up. But city leaders are now working to lure businesses to Cleveland Street's empty storefronts.

Top of the list for Clearwater officials: Recruiting restaurants, possibly with financial incentives, and refurbishing storefronts. They're also working on adopting a marketing brand that highlights the area as a destination.

"It's definitely time," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "You don't go talk to retailers and assume they'll open two weeks later. It's a long process ... but I think there's a market here because of the positive investment the city has made in the downtown."

The challenge is a big one. Some businesses, discouraged by the construction from the Cleveland streetscaping project over the past year, have fled. And roughly 40 percent of the street's storefronts sit vacant.

But Clearwater officials say downtown is slowly shedding its lifeless legacy.

In recent years, Clearwater has opened the Memorial Causeway Bridge and the Main Public Library. Voters have signed off on an $11-million boat slip project to begin in late 2008.

Last summer, work began on the $9-million Cleveland streetscaping initiative including new sidewalks, landscaping and lighting. It spans Osceola Avenue to Myrtle Street.

The work, geared to make the downtown street more pedestrian-friendly, should be finished by December.

In the meantime, the city, working with a number of downtown organizations, said it has a plan to recruit businesses that fit into a "cafe society," a concept that focuses on food and entertainment to attract traffic.

Among the plans, the city wants to:

-Hire a downtown manager for up to $70,000 a year to help coordinate the initiatives and act as a liaison between businesses, residents and city officials.

-Set aside $1-million over the next five years to help building owners improve facades or make interior renovations - such as kitchen fittings - to encourage restaurants to move in. This money also would be used for marketing.

-Tap into another $1-million available for redevelopment.

-Create a Web site to detail the programs and the street.

All of the money used in these plans comes from property taxes generated within the city's designated "community redevelopment area." The money, separate from the city's overall operating fund, can be used only for redevelopment projects for this area, which includes Cleveland Street. The city typically taps these funds to help projects start quicker. A number of big downtown condominium projects and a hotel have received such funding.

"We need to convey that there's something new and exciting and different happening on Cleveland Street to get businesses and people to come to the downtown," said Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin, who is helping spearhead the plans.

Downtown Development Board Chairman David Allbritton said a consultant designed several logos and "a branding scheme" to showcase the street. Vaughn Wedeen Creative, an Albuquerque graphic design firm, will conduct a market study in a few months.

"We can't just do something downtown and figure people will come," he said. "We have to present it properly, and we're just setting the stage for that to happen."

Last week, some businesses said they were happy the city was looking ahead, but were upset about the construction.

"It's a disaster, but maybe if they get something down here that will help," said Al Edelstein, 76, who's operated Scruples Unlimited, a memorabilia shop, for 11 years.

But George Kelly, co-owner of Downtown Newsstand for 16 years, questioned the plans.

"We need parking first," said Kelly, 57. "You can put something in, but if there's no access then people aren't going to come. It's not about location -- it's about access."

Fast Facts:

 

Downtown plans

- Hire a downtown manager

- Earmark $1-million for renovations and marketing

- Apply $1-million for redevelopment

- Create a Web site