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As bluff vote nears, the pressure builds

With balloting on plans for downtown less than six weeks away, both sides are digging in for a fight.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000


CLEARWATER -- The man on the phone Thursday night was a pollster from Birmingham, Ala., and his questions caught Rae Larsen off guard.

He asked the Countryside resident what she thought about the plan to redevelop downtown Clearwater and how she felt about the 99-year lease the city would be giving the developer.

He wanted her opinions on Mayor Brian Aungst, City Manager Mike Roberto, City Commissioner Ed Hooper and the Church of Scientology.

He also wanted to know what she thought of former Commissioner Fred Thomas, a millionaire businessman who is financing an effort to fight the plan, which goes before voters in a July 11 referendum.

When it came to the only question that mattered -- how she would vote -- Larsen was non-committal.

"I really would like more information," she said Friday. "I wish it wasn't so confusing."

Many of her friends in Countryside feel the same way, she said. "A lot of us are really sitting on the fence."

Which is precisely why a pollster dialed her number.

Not only is Larsen a regular voter, she and her Countryside neighbors are viewed by pro-redevelopment forces as potential allies -- undecided voters who, despite their geographic distance from downtown, might be swayed to support the plan.

This weekend, volunteers with Citizens for a Better Clearwater planned to walk through two Countryside neighborhoods as part of a door-to-door campaign that, five weeks before the election, is scratching for any "yes" vote it can get.

A recent survey by the developer, George de Guardiola, predicted that two-thirds of the city's most likely voters -- people older than 65 who have voted in the past four elections -- will reject the downtown plan.

"We're at such a disadvantage," conceded political consultant Mary Repper, who is working for Citizens for a Better Clearwater. "You can count on starting 20 points in the hole. It's huge."

Repper points to Thomas and his Save the Bayfront group, which mobilized last year to oppose the city's plan for a new Memorial Causeway Bridge and now is opposing de Guardiola's proposal.

"He's done a very effective job because he's been the only one out there," Repper said of Thomas. "Their little phrase, "Save the Bayfront,' is such a nice little cliche. It's easy to understand. It's dramatic. It works. It's like "freedom of choice.' "

The problem will be educating voters in such a short time, Repper said, adding that the city begged county elections officials for space on the fall ballot.

Now the pro-redevelopment camp must come to grips with a sleepy mid-summer election and the common political wisdom that such events primarily draw opponents.

Add to that a growing realization among supporters that many Clearwater residents lack even a basic understanding of the plan. In strategy meetings last week, supporters discovered that many do not know there are three ballot measures and that all three must be approved for the project to proceed as planned.

"There's a lot of ground to make up," Repper said.

De Guardiola's proposal includes a multiscreen movie theater at Harborview Center, 1,200 new housing units, and more shops and restaurants downtown.

For some of the projects, the developers would lease seven pieces of city-owned land for 99 years, promising in exchange to maintain the entire bayfront, including an expansive waterfront park with public green space and walkways across the front of the bluff.

The city would reserve new property taxes from the developers' projects to fund public improvements such as the park and street beautification.

The campaign over the plan is shaping into a battle between Save the Bayfront, which sees the de Guardiola's proposal as too risky and open-ended, and Citizens for a Better Clearwater, which sees it as a brilliant stroke and the last realistic chance for downtown redevelopment in Clearwater.

Each camp has an Internet Web site to help get out the word, a sign that Clearwater politics is catching up to the times.

"We're giving them a blank check," said longtime activist Anne Garris, spokeswoman for Save the Bayfront. "We're basically saying . . . "We trust you.' "

On the opposing side are people like Scott Wintrip, the spokesman for the Citizens for a Better Clearwater and a young father who lives near downtown. "I'm tired of the way things look in downtown," he said. "Enough's enough. I go to St. Petersburg and I get depressed."

This week, his group will gain a potent ally: the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is forming a political action committee to raise campaign funds and lobby the city's business owners.

The mood is upbeat at the new headquarters of Citizens for a Better Clearwater -- a Cleveland Street storefront that until recently was occupied by a small hot dog restaurant. As if to make the group's point about the need for redevelopment, the business recently folded.

Coke signs and a menu featuring a $2 hot dog with sauerkraut still hang amid all the temporary trappings of a fledgling campaign -- folding tables, fliers, signs, a fax machine, a used computer and a freshly installed phone.

Volunteers circulate in and out with an air of purpose and hope.

"It's just a broad group of people," says co-chair Pam Marks, a nurse and mother who lives south of downtown. "We're often called a special interest group that's well-financed and that's just not the case. We work one dollar at a time."

The group is responsible for a color brochure mailed to voters last week and it plans to put up four billboards. Its members plan door-to-door campaigns through key precincts and are dotting neighborhoods with bright green campaign signs.

A new sign developed just last week says "Save Our Downtown," a twist on the opposition's slogan.

Garris, for her part, doesn't buy the notion that the other side is the underdog.

Ask her about Citizens for a Better Clearwater and she seeks to correct the questioner: "You mean the chamber group."

It is a sentiment that comes with old baggage, calling to mind a time in the early and mid-1990s when Fred Thomas was in office. No city commissioner in recent memory took the chamber to task more than Thomas did. And no group of people worked harder against Thomas than a core group of chamber leaders.

Today, the two are pitted against each other once more.

Garris argues the city would give up more in the deal with de Guardiola than meets the eye, and she alleges city officials are not being forthright about it. She says Save the Bayfront plans to distribute more signs and spread its message, but its members have not gathered to make plans.

She complains that city officials are working for the other side, in violation of their proclaimed neutrality.

Indeed, Citizens for a Better Clearwater met for a strategy session last week not in their headquarters but in a conference room on the second floor of City Hall. There, they unveiled signs they said were printed at cost by City Commissioner Bob Clark, one of four commissioners who voted to put the plan to a vote.

Complained Garris: "We're fighting our own tax money."

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