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Look closely at claims of referendum success


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2000

The ability of developers to help win a referendum on downtown projects has come up during the debate over which of two companies should be selected to reinvent Clearwater's waterfront.

The team recommended by city staffers, led by New Orleans developer David Waltemath, has claimed success in two referendums in the past -- which some city commissioners say is a selling point.

A closer look at the cited referendums shows their situations were somewhat different than the fight over waterfront development shaping up in Clearwater.

In one referendum, New Orleans voters approved a property tax on themselves to fund $40-million in waterfront improvements and finance the construction of a major aquarium with public dollars.

Pollsters attributed a landslide victory to the lack of organized opposition and a very positive campaign, which included full-page, free advertising for the projects in the city's major newspaper.

Waltemath said he was involved behind the scenes. But he clarified last week that he was not yet on the board of the Audubon Institute, a private, non-profit group that carried out the projects along the New Orleans riverfront for the city, at the time of the referendum.

In a second instance, Punta Gorda voters overwhelmingly answered yes to keep a new Charlotte County courthouse in their city, allowing it to be built on a portion of some waterfront land that Waltemath had previously contracted with the city to develop.

Waltemath says the referendum signified community support for his project, which currently consists of three condominium buildings and yet-to-be-built retail and restaurant space.

But the question wasn't worded that way, and opponents of additional development of Punta Gorda's waterfront green space have disputed the spin that the referendum approved Waltemath's project. They said it supported a major civic institution seen as critical to the city's survival.

-- Times researched Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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