Beach visitors center in limbo
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
CLEARWATER -- Building a visitors center in the heart of a major tourist destination might seem like a no-brainer.
Since July, the outline of a new welcome station on Clearwater Beach has been staked out near Pier 60, the popular outdoor living room of Clearwater Beach.
Orange netting tied to temporary poles marks the proposed footprint of the center, which would cost $70,000 and be a place for a visitor to pick up a map, pocket some coupons or grab a brochure for a cruise or fishing trip.
But it might never happen. City administrators are wondering whether they will need to rethink the project.
In July the visitors center project was put on hold so that officials could expand the size of the proposed center and try to snare a $30,000 grant from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to help finance the project.
But now city officials seem glum about the prospect of receiving the grant. They note that a recently released, preliminary research report shows that less than 2 percent of the people who visit Pinellas County annually patronize visitors centers.
And the majority of the county's hotel guests -- perhaps about 79 percent of them -- would prefer to find information about area attractions and restaurants at their hotels, according to Research Data Services Inc. of Tampa.
Those numbers are significant, said Daryl Seaton, a beach hotel owner who also serves on the board that oversees the county's tourist development efforts.
"The customer is telling us something there, and maybe we should be listening to them and doing more of what they want," Seaton said. "It's important to think how best we can offer to value the customer."
Both City Manager Bill Horne and Bill Morris, the city's harbormaster, said they expect county officials to discuss the new research at a December meeting, at which they might decide to scrap the request for the grant.
If that happens, the city would have to decide whether to proceed trying to do the project with its $40,000 budget or rethink the project, which has been pushed by the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce.
City administrators have even briefly chatted about whether the Harborview Center might be an appropriate place for the center, recent e-mails show.
Commissioners have had mixed feelings about building the center.
Ed Hart said he thinks the city should provide information to tourists, but the way the city went about starting to build the new center "seemed like a rush project, not really thought out."
The project needs to be talked about now, Hart said, to "make sure everybody is still on board."
Commissioner Bill Jonson said he would be reluctant to break any promise to beach businesses to build the center.
"If you make a commitment, you want to follow up on that; or you have to have a good reason, like wanting to partner with them to do something that would be better," Jonson said. "From what I've heard in the beach community, they still feel it would be a useful, positive factor on the beach."
Any new information center would replace a kiosk that was placed in the lobby of the city marina after the beach's old civic center, which had a visitors center inside it, was knocked down to make way for the roundabout. The kiosk serves about 2,000 to 2,800 visitors monthly, city statistics show.
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