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Officials to ponder referendum plans

Over the next week the commission will decide whether to put the downtown redevelopment proposal before voters.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


CLEARWATER -- City commissioners are poised to give residents a chance to decide the fate of a $200-million downtown redevelopment plan.

"We have to basically give up a little to get a lot," Mayor Brian Aungst said at a Monday workshop on the issue.

But the commission is not unanimous in its feelings about the deal. Commissioner Ed Hart said he wants more details. The most vocal critic of the plan, Commissioner J.B. Johnson, said he hopes a public outcry sinks the downtown project.

"I as a person am not a pessimist. I want to see downtown developed," Johnson said.

"It just seems to me we're jumping off in a hurry to do this" without enough details, he said.

The commission is set for a preliminary vote on putting the plan before voters at its 6 p.m. Thursday meeting. A second, final vote is scheduled May 23. If the commission gives its approval at that time, voters would decide on the plan in a July 11 referendum.

Technically, commissioners will be voting on whether to ask voters to approve the plan. By approving the ordinance, the commission in effect approves the plan.

The proposed questions will ask residents to allow the city to lease city-owned, downtown properties for up to 99 years to the developers and to allow the city to redevelop about 27 acres of public land overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

The city also needs residents' approval to issue up to $15-million in bonds -- to be paid back with Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenues -- to build a combined library and city hall.

Finally, voters will have to okay a land swap with Calvary Baptist involving property in east Clearwater. The land swap will help the church move across town and sell its downtown properties to the developers to build a hotel and condominiums.

To make the plan happen, the city would require West Palm Beach-based developers George de Guardiola and David Frisbie to build an expanded waterfront public park, beautify Cleveland Street and move City Hall, among other improvements to public space.

As their payoff, the developers would construct a multiplex movie theater, up to 1,200 housing units, shops and four restaurants on city property they would lease for $1 per year.

The land to be leased and redeveloped includes the City Hall, the Harborview Center and the Station Square sites.

The developers also would lease the ground floor of a new library for a bookstore and cafe, a 7,500-square-foot parcel near Coachman Park for a restaurant dubbed Tavern on the Bluff and a portion of the Memorial Causeway that would become a pier when a new bridge is built in a few years.

The leases would last for up to 99 years. After 49 years, the developers would start paying 7.5 percent of their projects' property values in rent.

Officials are also considering another arrangement: a 60-year lease, with rent due after 30 years. But at the shorter lease's end, the city would have to buy all the new projects on its land.

Other key issues:

The developers want the right to promote 60 events yearly in a new city amphitheater.

The developers would cover the costs to maintain all the common, public areas in their plan, except for a proposed botanical garden. Maintenance costs could be used as a credit toward future rent.

The city would help the developers finance some projects by sponsoring the sale of bonds. The bonds would be paid off either by the developers using revenues from their projects or through increased downtown property taxes, generated through a method called tax-increment financing.

The city would give the developers $16-million to build the library and bayfront park -- the primary cash cost of the plan to the city.

The city would agree to seek grants or impose a special property assessment on downtown land to help pay for the amphitheater, botanical gardens and possibly other projects.

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