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A Times Editorial

Speak now or project may be lost

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2000

The Clearwater City Commission is being asked on Thursday night to pick a developer for downtown. It is a choice between two apparently competent groups: MarketFest and de Guardiola Development Ventures. Yet it is not a simple choice.

Commissioners are faced with what will likely become the most important, and most controversial, decision of their political lives. Here is why: There is so much to gain, and so much to lose.

If downtown is revitalized, it could dramatically boost the city's economic health, quality of life and image. If the effort fails, it could plunge the city into bitter division and inaction for years to come.

The issue is politically loaded. The dominating presence of the Church of Scientology adds controversy to every downtown issue. And MarketFest has further politicized the commissioners' decision by flaunting influential local individuals who were added to its team.

Then there's the volatile issue of publicly owned property.

Downtown redevelopment would have a significant impact on the bayfront. Both developers have plans for commercial use of the bluff through a long-term lease with the city, which raises fears that the bluff will become a glorified strip mall. Yet both projects would involve significant improvements to Coachman Park and the waterfront, which is overdue and universally popular.

What makes this issue different from others, however, is the vital role Clearwater residents will play. The ultimate success or failure of downtown redevelopment rides on a vote of the people because any commercial use of the bluff has to be approved in a referendum.

So in addition to evaluating the two development groups, commissioners have to keep these other vital issues in mind.

It will take discipline and courage. Are they up to it?

While the task at hand is to pick one of the developers, commissioners should recognize that the process is as important as the choice. Clearwater residents should be welcomed in as a full partner in downtown redevelopment. That means it is time for commissioners to share their thoughts and vision for downtown.

Which developer should commissioners pick? There will be strong arguments for both, and for neither. MarketFest and de Guardiola appear to be up to the challenge, and they give commissioners a choice of styles.

MarketFest, out of New Orleans, would develop downtown quickly and dramatically, promising a movie theater across from the bluff and shopping and entertainment on the bluff. Maybe commissioners believe early momentum is the key to success. But MarketFest's plans for extensive retail development on the bluff could make it more difficult to win public approval.

De Guardiola Development Ventures, out of West Palm Beach, would take a more patient approach, focusing on the architectural look of the entire downtown and mixing civic activities with residential and commercial improvements, some on the bluff. Commissioners might believe that incremental progress and more focus on Cleveland Street is the way to go, or they might fear the slow approach will run out of steam. The de Guardiola way, however, could be viewed as less of a threat to the bluff.

Before making a decision, commissioners should discuss which is right for Clearwater, because only by matching the developer to the commission's vision will the process appear to be based on dispassionate evaluation rather than politics.

Commissioners say they have asked hard questions during their visits to the developers' projects around the state and country. It is time to share the answers.

One of MarketFest's partners, David Waltemath, is involved in a downtown redevelopment project in Punta Gorda that is languishing. If they choose MarketFest, commissioners should tell residents how that problem will be avoided in Clearwater. Perhaps Waltemath has learned a valuable lesson in Punta Gorda, but it is up to commissioners to assure us that he has.

Another controversial issue should be considered. Will either of the developer's proposals require the commission to condemn property? It appears that a majority of commissioners are unwilling (rightly so) to use eminent domain to aid a developer. If that is true, they should rule out a development plan that requires it.

The cost to residents should be another topic in the discussion. An investment will be required of both the successful developer and the city. What will the city be asked to contribute? Land, money, low rents, tax relief? Are higher taxes for residents necessary for redevelopment? Residents might be willing to accept their share of the burden if commissioners are forthcoming.

Finally, at each step commissioners should consider the crucial element in downtown redevelopment: the will of the people as expressed in the upcoming referendum. If the process is seen by many as incomplete or dishonest, the referendum is likely to fail.

Some Clearwater residents will never accept development of any kind on the bluff. Some will consider limited commercial use of their land if it leads to economic vitality for their downtown. Many others are undecided, waiting to hear the details.

Commissioners, it is up to you now. Speak from the heart. Share your vision for downtown Clearwater. Listen not to a few individuals but to the hopes and fears of most Clearwater residents. Then make downtown redevelopment work.

There may not be a second chance.

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