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    A Times Editorial

    Renewal plans vital to tourism

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001

    Proposals of great importance to two North Pinellas municipalities soon will go before county officials for hearings. County disapproval could kill both.

    Today, the Pinellas Planning Council is scheduled to hear about the city of Clearwater's plan to redevelop the declining commercial areas of Clearwater Beach. The plan, called Beach by Design, seeks to attract new development on the island by establishing three areas where high-end resort hotels could be built using a city-created "pool" of 600 more hotel units than allowed under current law.

    The Planning Council must vote on the plan, which requires a change in the countywide land use map. The Planning Council's decision will go to the County Commission as a recommendation, but will not be binding on the county commissioners, who have the final say.

    Within the next few weeks, the County Commission also will decide on a Tarpon Springs proposal to create a Community Redevelopment District, or CRA, downtown. Tarpon Springs has adopted an ambitious plan to improve its downtown and the area stretching from downtown to the Sponge Docks, but the plan hinges on the creation of a CRA, which must be approved by the county.

    When a CRA is set up, all new property taxes collected inside the district in the future are returned to the district to pay for improvements such as landscaping, lighting, street paving and parking. The county, as a taxing authority, must consent to give up future tax revenue from the redevelopment district.

    As county officials prepare to make decisions on the Tarpon Springs and Clearwater Beach proposals, there are a couple of things they should keep in mind.

    First, it is no surprise that both proposals are for important tourist areas that over the last decade suffered such declines that their ability to continue attracting the same number and type of tourists was in doubt.

    Some areas of Clearwater Beach are pockmarked with rundown motels, weedy sidewalks and poorly maintained streets. Some motel owners are struggling to survive.

    Until Tarpon Springs recently finished some improvements at the Sponge Docks, conditions there had become an embarrassment to merchants and residents alike. The area between downtown and the docks continues to look ragged, with narrow, congested streets, cracked sidewalks and empty lots. And Tarpon's downtown historic district is a gem waiting to be polished.

    Tourism is a vital industry in both Clearwater and Tarpon Springs -- important not just to those municipalities, but to the overall health of the tourist industry countywide. Conditions in both areas must be improved and maintained or tourism will suffer, jobs will be lost and tax revenues will decline.

    The second thing that is important for county officials to remember is that neither the Tarpon Springs nor Clearwater Beach plan was created in a vacuum.

    In both cases, the city staff and consultants worked for months on draft plans after the affected communities demanded improvements. There were lots of public meetings in both cities over many weeks, with plenty of public input given and changes made to both plans in response. Artists' renderings were created, maps were drawn and the plans were explained at civic club gatherings and neighborhood association meetings.

    These were plans created and approved by communities, not by some government bureaucrat sitting in a city office.

    And in both cities, even though the plans still must receive outside government approvals and nothing has been built, the response of the private sector has been immediate and positive. Tarpon Springs is being visited by investor groups interested in building hotels or inns near the Sponge Docks or downtown. Clearwater already has approved one resort project for the beach, based just on the promise of Beach by Design, and other resort developers are showing substantial interest.

    When they receive these two plans, county officials should examine them carefully, as they would any other proposals, and do their jobs. But they should keep in mind that much more than paper and ink has gone into making these plans, and much more than dreams will die if they cannot be implemented.

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