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Undecided voters key to project

They want a livelier downtown, but project particulars keep them on the fence.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


CLEARWATER -- One in five of your friends and neighbors will have a lot of power at the polls July 11. Call them the undecided.

According to a St. Petersburg Times poll completed last week, 19 percent of those who intend to vote are uncertain how they'll cast their ballots in the July 11 referendum on the city's downtown redevelopment plan. As a group, they could swing the result in either direction.

The number of wishy-washy, would-be voters worries those who are working for approval of the plan.

"The majority of them either don't show up or they vote against us," said George de Guardiola, one of the developers who proposed the redevelopment plan. "That's why this thing is too close to call."

The undecided ones are people like Sherlie Burns, a 75-year-old retiree who has lived in Clearwater for about 14 years with her husband in a mobile home park off Druid Road.

"Today, after I read a couple of things, I said, well I may vote "yes,"' Mrs. Burns explained Thursday evening.

"Then I took a ride down to the beach for dinner, and decided I'll vote no. That roundabout is a mess. And I don't particularly care for all the high-rises along the beach. And I'm not too sure I'd like to see Coachman Park with a big amphitheater there."

As for the city's leaders, Burns said: "You can't trust them. We don't know whether they'll follow through and do it, or change some things after our vote. I just can't see the reason why they want us to give them a 99-year lease."

But on the other hand . . .

"I'd really like to see more of Clearwater's center developed, rather than just seeing Clearwater shops closed up downtown," Mrs. Burns pondered. "Oh, I'm still on the fence."

Mrs. Burns is not alone, as a peek inside the statistically sampled minds of the undecided voters shows:

They don't trust City Hall. Only 2.5 percent of poll respondents said they feel "very" confident that the city government can successfully oversee the redevelopment plan.

A majority are uncomfortable with parts of the plan, especially tearing down City Hall to build apartments, converting Calvary Baptist Church into a hotel and building a new main library that includes a restaurant and stores.

Two-thirds are bothered by the idea of leasing city land downtown to the developers for 99 years. And the majority are bothered about the absence of a written contract to explain the lease terms explicitly.

Two-thirds are concerned that redevelopment will benefit the Church of Scientology.

Three-fourths fear redevelopment will cause an increase in their taxes -- even though city officials say it won't.

And yet, the downtown plan does have appeal. The majority of these waffling voters do support expanding Coachman Park, building a new city pier and creating a series of stairs and public plazas down to the city's downtown waterfront.

How will they make up their minds?

Stephanie Brown, a 41-year-old mom who lives in the Country Park subdivision in Countryside, says that she will read the newspaper and talk to friends, some of whom are involved in the "Yes-Yes-Yes" campaign. She wants to make an informed judgment.

"It's going to make (downtown) much more attractive," Brown said. "I only go down there once or twice a year. It would give me a reason to go."

But her misgivings are twofold.

"I'll be honest," she said. "I do not trust that city council. And who knows who's going to be on the commission in five years from now? I'm just not sure they can make a sound decision on this stuff."

Brown can cite the roots of her mistrust. She remembers the cost overruns and mismanagement associated with construction of Harborview Center for conventions several years ago, under a different city administration.

More recently, public furor erupted over the city's quickly built, accident-prone beach roundabout.

Then in March, Brown was irritated when the city asked voters to eliminate limits on the length of leases of city property in a referendum. City officials declared it had little -- if anything -- to do with the downtown plan.

Voters decided to keep 30-year time limits on leases.

Now the city must ask voters to approve 99-year leases of downtown city property to developers.

It seemed to Brown like the city was trying to slip the issue past voters quietly in March.

"I don't know what the benefit of a 99-year lease will be," Brown said. "I still need to know more about that. . . . There's still just too many loose ends for me."

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