[an error occurred while processing this directive]
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001
Voters in Clearwater chose new leaders Tuesday, braving rain showers and gusty winds to go to the polls and make a statement.
What did they say?
It appears that at least the 20 percent of registered voters who turned out said they want the city's deliberate trek toward redevelopment of downtown and Clearwater Beach to continue, but with a little more deliberation and openness than in the past.
In each of the three races for a City Commission seat, voters chose candidates who supported last summer's downtown redevelopment referendum, though the referendum itself failed. Why would people who voted against the referendum nine months ago vote Tuesday for candidates who supported it?
It could be, as pundits have suggested, that the referendum's failure was not a wholesale rejection of major redevelopment downtown, but instead a statement of opposition to any construction on the downtown bluff or any leasing of public land for an extended period.
Or it could be that after nine months, the oft-repeated city message that redevelopment is desperately needed in Clearwater's declining neighborhoods, most notably downtown and the beach, has finally won converts.
Or it could be that some of those who voted against the downtown project last summer have come to understand that they made their decision based on inaccurate or misleading information distributed by opponents to the project.
The idea of major redevelopment projects, including high-rise resort hotels on Clearwater Beach, apparently isn't scary to people who live there. The two Clearwater Beach precincts, as well as Island Estates, supported pro-redevelopment candidates in every race Tuesday.
The three Clearwater candidates elected -- Hoyt Hamilton, Whitney Gray and Bill Jonson -- all said during their campaigns that they support carefully planned redevelopment projects, but that was not their only message, and perhaps that is part of the reason they were successful. They promised to approve only development projects that are good for the city overall. They promised to find ways to involve more residents in the process of planning such projects. And Gray and Jonson, particularly, tempered their pro-redevelopment message with a promise to give more attention to the needs of neighborhoods.
One thing the voters seemed to say in a rather resounding way Tuesday was that they don't want to turn the train around when it comes to redevelopment. The candidate with the strongest anti-development message, Save the Bayfront leader Lee Regulski, was soundly defeated, winning only 10 precincts to Gray's 35.
They also said that experience on the School Board does not necessarily translate to a Clearwater commission seat. Former School Board member Lucile Casey won only two precincts.
Many political observers had said that Tuesday's election would be a referendum on the current City Commission's push to bring new growth to a city that had begun to stagnate in the decade of the 1990s while much of the nation enjoyed an economic boom. If that is the case, city officials should feel confident that they merely need to tweak the process before moving along.