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Poll: Downtown plan has edge

But a corps of undecided voters makes the results of referendums for redevelopment on July 11 far from certain.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Just 10 days before a city referendum on a sweeping downtown redevelopment plan, more people support the proposal than oppose it. But enough people are undecided to keep the election result hanging in the balance. About 44 percent of those who plan on going to the polls say they will vote for the redevelopment plan, while 37 percent say they'll vote against it, according to a St. Petersburg Times poll completed last week. Some 19 percent said they are undecided.

Supporters of redevelopment are cautiously optimistic.

"The election could go either way right now," said West Palm Beach-based developer George de Guardiola, who created the downtown plan that has been the subject of so much debate. "We're going to concentrate our efforts on making sure that voters turn out and making sure that we create some more information pieces for the people who are most against us."

Legal restrictions on the use of city land require the referendum.

On July 11, residents will decide whether to allow the city to lease roughly 5 acres of city-owned, downtown land to developers for 99 years at $1-a-year rent. Voters will also be asked to decide two related points: whether to authorize bonds for a library and whether to approve a land swap with Calvary Baptist Church, freeing up its downtown property for redevelopment.

If voters approve the measures, a pair of West Palm Beach developers would construct shops, a movie theater, restaurants and apartments downtown. With city help, they also would build an expanded downtown waterfront park and a city pier. They would pay to maintain the expanded park, in lieu of paying rent for land they would lease so cheaply.

The complex plan has whipped up community angst. The Times poll results show some of the conflicts that people are grappling with:

Only about one in eight residents say they are "very" confident that city officials could successfully oversee the downtown plan if they approved it.

About one in four expressed specific support for the proposal, even though nearly twice as many say they will vote for it. About two-thirds of the respondents say they are uncomfortable with leasing some of the city's precious waterfront land to developers for 99 years.

Nearly two-thirds are bothered that the projects downtown could be too beneficial for the Church of Scientology.

Generations are butting heads. Fully half of those against the plan are 65 years old and older. But four in 10 of those supporting the plan are under age 44.

Even if the downtown plan passes, respondents say they wouldn't go downtown more often than they do now.

Despite concerns, supporters said the plan affords the city's best opportunity to rejuvenate downtown.

"I definitely view it as a window of opportunity. It's something we need to do," said Robert Jason, 54. "Downtown Clearwater is in deep need of redevelopment right now, and I don't see any other options."

Regardless of where people stand on the issue, the poll suggests, people care about it. A whopping 51 percent of the city's adults claim they will definitely vote July 11, which could be a record if it happened. "I don't know what we'll do when it's over," says Nettie Tallon, 67-year-old Island Estates resident, "because it's really been a juicy part of our conversations. Everybody is talking about that. And whatever side they're on, they're adamant."

Opponents say leaders won't make plan work

At meetings over the past two months, people have complained continually about two issues: Confidence in city government and the presence of the spiritual headquarters of Scientology downtown.

The poll indicates people who dislike Scientology still are willing to vote for the downtown plan.

But people who distrust city leaders are definitely voting against the redevelopment proposal, the poll shows.

In fact, more than two-thirds of the people against the downtown redevelopment have no confidence at all that city officials can make the redevelopment plan a success.

"The confidence is nil as far as I'm concerned," said Tallon, who frequently drives on Clearwater Beach's notoriously accident-prone roundabout.

Giving the city the power to negotiate a 99-year lease on its waterfront property makes many queasy.

"You don't mortgage a century of your city's future for $1 a year," said Rob Meier, a 31-year-old resident. "I'd be 120 years old. That's going to affect not just my generation, but also my children and maybe grandchildren."

City commissioners said they are not surprised by the mistrust in City Hall.

Mayor Brian Aungst thinks the city has shot itself in the foot too many times in the past year, doing silly things like trying to change the name of Clearwater Beach to Clearwater's Beach.

Commissioner Ed Hart, who like Aungst supports the downtown proposal, says the commission will be diligent in the coming months to make the project a success. He wants the city to hire outside consultants to review the plan and all the financial assumptions to verify they are sound.

Aungst says he wants Clearwater to retain some control over the public land that the developers lease from the city. How would be worked out in negotiations.

"We have a terms sheet that we have agreed upon with the developers," Aungst said. "I'm willing to stake my political future on making sure that this is an airtight agreement after the referendum."

Benefits for Scientologists troubles half of voters

About half the city's possible voters are bothered "a lot" by the idea that redevelopment will make downtown a nicer place for Scientologists to live, the Times poll shows. Trying to capitalize on those feelings, a group called Save the Bayfront has sprinkled allegations throughout its mailings that Scientologists could become the owners of the city's land downtown if voters approve the referendum -- which isn't true.

"We don't have to create a fear in Scientology," Save the Bayfront spokeswoman Anne Garris said, when her group was accused of using scare-tactics in its ads last week. "It's already there."

De Guardiola said he is willing to insert a clause into future agreements saying the city's downtown land can never be leased to Church of Scientology entities, unless a future City Commission desired that. He hopes that puts this issue to rest.

"It's really been hard to deal with that," he said. "Shoe store owners, jewelers downtown, all those people are going to benefit from this, but they're not the ones being singled out."

Watching from the sidelines, church officials have been very reluctant to be dragged into the debate. Individual Scientologists have, however, helped in the campaign to win the referendum election, hanging out at the headquarters of Citizens for a Better Clearwater downtown. Church officials find Save the Bayfront's ads insulting.

"We have absolutely no designs on developing in downtown Clearwater," said church spokesman Mike Rinder. "We've been asked about it for years. The fact is that we're centralizing our facilities (downtown). ... This is a city redevelopment effort, and we're not involved in it."

Not everyone is concerned about the church's presence downtown.

"It's a win-win situation for the church either way," said Rita Weaver, a 77-year-old resident who has lived in Clearwater more than 50 years. "If there is no plan, they may someday have option to buy more land downtown at less expensive prices. If there is a downtown plan, their parishioners will have a nicer downtown to visit."

Plan's effects on library, taxes spark concern

Weaver, however, still plans to vote against the proposal. She doesn't like the idea of building a library with shops and a cafe on the bottom floor and the main library on the second floor with City Hall on the top.

"They're squishing the library in between two other things," said Weaver, who often goes to the library to watch her grandson perform as a puppeteer. "I think the library should be its own building."

Another major fear is that the downtown plan will cause higher taxes, something city officials deny.

And the vast majority of people who are against the plan also are opposed to the idea of knocking down Harborview Center to create a movie theater.

The least popular aspect of the plan among all respondents was replacing City Hall with apartments and a public parking garage.

Allowing Calvary Baptist Church to be replaced with a hotel was also unpopular. Several respondents said in interviews that they misunderstood the question, believing that the church was going to be knocked down. The developers plan to preserve the historic sanctuary.

The most loved aspects of the plan -- even by people who will vote no -- are building a city pier out of the old Memorial Causeway bridge, expanding the city's waterfront downtown park and constructing a stairway with plazas and fountains down to the bayfront.

Supporters think such improvements will help downtown become more fun.

"Restaurants and entertainment, those are things that people will go downtown for," said Carol Murphy, 43, who put a "VOTE YES" sign in her front yard. "Right now there's not a lot of reasons to go downtown.

What appeals to Murphy most about the plan is simple:

"Doing something," she said.

How the poll was done

The St. Petersburg Times opinion poll was conducted by the Times research division. To produce a statistically significant report, 402 randomly selected Clearwater residents who were 18 or older were interviewed by telephone from June 21 to 27. Clearwater residents who said they paid no attention at all to the redevelopment were excluded from the 402-person sample. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

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