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Magic moment for bluff may be here

Signs and numbers indicate the timing may be right for development of a major retail or entertainment complex in downtown Clearwater.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 1999


CLEARWATER -- They differ in details, but the goal of the five proposals to build a shopping and entertainment attraction on the city's sloping, waterfront bluff is the same:

Make the city's downtown an exciting place to shop and play instead of a sleepy, 9-to-5 world that empties of 8,000 workers when the whistle blows.

But the proposals' ambition raises the question: Why would such grand plans work now?

Even City Manager Mike Roberto admits that Clearwater has had plenty of practice dreaming up redevelopment ideas before -- and none met with much success.

"There have been nine downtown plans since 1962," he said. "The writing has been done. The doing has been lacking."

The city still hasn't finalized yet another new plan for redevelopment of its downtown.

But after the recent proposals, there is renewed optimism that a major downtown redevelopment project actually could work. City officials, developers and local business people give the following reasons why:

Market research indicates downtown Clearwater could support a major retail and entertainment development.

Instead of a curse, the Church of Scientology is now viewed by more businesses as an asset -- even a potential partner -- for economic growth.

The city already has spent millions of dollars on redevelopment and is committed to working with developers.

Underlying it all, a good national economy means that it will be easier than in past years to sign up tenants and persuade investors to back a new project, officials and developers said.

"This is the window of opportunity," City Commissioner Bob Clark said, "when business people are tempted to do expansions and get into new ventures."

Demographics

One reason developers are eyeing the bluff is that Clearwater's demographics are alluring.

The numbers are good enough that Trammell Crow Co., a national behemoth of development, was interested in Clearwater before the city solicited proposals for the bluff, said Bob Abberger, who runs the company's west coast of Florida office.

The company is developing another mixed retail and residential complex just south of the bluff, project manager Michael Delp said. The complex, up to 300 units, would be on property east of Fort Harrison Avenue between Turner Street and Druid Road, according to the city and a local real estate agent.

About 15 years ago, central Clearwater wasn't enticing, Abberger said. But now, "the demographics have begun to mature enough (during) the last 10 years to make it feasible."

Of particular interest: more than 200,000 residents are within a 10-mile radius of the downtown, by Trammell Crow's estimates. About half the residents, Abberger said, are now in the 25-to-50 age range with average household incomes in excess of $50,000.

"Those people are your entertainment target market," Abberger said. "Those are very strong demographics."

Another developer also sees profits to be made in North Pinellas residents.

"The people we interviewed said they would have to go to St. Petersburg or Hyde Park in Tampa to find a pedestrian-type environment," said Jay Miller, executive vice president of Steiner +

Associates, which also is vying for the bluff's development.

North Pinellas residents, Miller said, may be yearning to get out of suburban malls and spend their time shopping or having fun somewhere with a greater sense of place and community.

Developers have different ideas about what that place would be. Most suggest a modern, waterfront shopping complex and with a concert amphitheater in Coachman Park. They have also proposed a stadium-style, multiscreen theater; condominiums; and even a convention hotel on the mostly public land overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

The demographics to support such projects look even better, developers said, when you add the millions of tourists visiting area beaches. Those visitors, conveniently located just across the harbor, are usually willing to spend more money than locals, said David Waltemath, a New Orleans developer.

But one developer, George de Guardiola of West Palm Beach, says that tourists are not as important as attracting more residents to live downtown.

The city's central business district already stands to gain more than 1,240 residential units in the next few years. The population is finally on the upswing, after about 41 percent of downtown residents left in the 1980s.

A downtown population is needed to support a new shopping and restaurant complex, de Guardiola said.

"I don't know of one downtown that's not crying out for residential uses," de Guardiola said.

His team, which includes a company that revitalized downtown West Palm Beach, suggests a less entertainment-oriented project with retail, restaurants and more downtown living units.

Scientology

Over the years, some city leaders have blamed the Church of Scientology for the demise of downtown. The church became such a prominent institution that residents and businesses decided to avoid the area, they argued.

The church has maintained that it improved the downtown, by bringing people here and enhancing its property.

It is the latter view that many city officials and the potential developers are now espousing. Some are touting Scientology as an asset, despite controversies such as protests this weekend over the death of a former Scientologist.

The city should stop searching for someone to blame for downtown's vacant storefronts and work to fix the problems, said Commissioner Ed Hart.

"We even met with officials of the Church of Scientology," said Miller of Steiner +

Associates. "Their visitors come from as far away as Europe and they're looking for something to do. We viewed it as a potential positive."

The cooperative attitude toward the church helps make a major downtown project possible, city officials said.

"We were straightforward (with the developers)," said Assistant City Manager Bob Keller. "The church is here. It can be an asset. It draws a lot of people with expendable income. We need to involve all the players in redeveloping this downtown."

Scientology owns some of the land that could be needed to develop the bluff and is willing to negotiate to see a new retail and entertainment complex built, said Tom Devocht, a church official who is overseeing construction of new Scientology facilities downtown.

Also, the church has as many as 1,000 visitors each week, Devocht said. The number is expected to grow as the church expands.

"Ninety percent of our people want movies. They want brand-name stores, Italian restaurants and seafood restaurants," Devocht said. "I think the developers want to tap into that. These people are definitely looking for places to go."

This summer, the church provided the city with a market analysis of its staff and visitors, to show how they are an affluent niche market with spending power.

"I would assume that some developers would see it as a positive," said Commissioner Ed Hooper.

Still, some residents don't view Scientology as an asset, but rather as a reason to stay away from downtown.

"Clearwater city officials, go out and ask your constituents why they don't go downtown and don't want to go downtown," one resident, Harold McGee, wrote recently to the Times. "The answer from most will invariably be: "Because of the Scientologists.' "

City leadership

Local government's help will be needed to make a major project work, developers said. So far, they said, the city has demonstrated its commitment to success on the bluff.

"Our experience with developing these kinds of centers in downtowns is that almost universally, they require some kind of participation on the part of the city," said Miller of Steiner +

Associates.

Steiner, for instance, had to buy land from Tampa for Centro Ybor, a complex the company is creating in Tampa. Also, Tampa helped the company to obtain a lease for Ybor City's historic center, and the city is building an $11-million parking facility to bolster the project.

About $30-million or more would be a major investment to build a new destination in downtown Clearwater, Miller said. City support would be essential, he said, although none of the proposals makes specific requests of the city.

Two top local real estate brokers said the current proposals wouldn't be on the table without effective city leadership.

"Clearwater has demonstrated they're developer-friendly," said Mark Klein of Klein and Heuchan real estate. "In the past there were always rifts between different factions of people who didn't want to see development."

"It's clearly because the city administration has shown a zeal to make something happen," said Lee Arnold of Colliers Arnold real estate services.

In the past, Arnold courted other developers who wanted to build a movie theater downtown. But those deals fell through for numerous reasons. The new city administration has been much more pro-active at attracting new business to Clearwater, he said.

"Synergism is everything," Arnold said. "Success breeds success. You have a lot of excitement right now. If they can keep the momentum, they'll have a home run in downtown that could significantly change our lifestyle."

Mayor Brian Aungst said that while he didn't want to brag, the city should get some credit. Millions of dollars are being spent to improve Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, the major link to downtown, as well as access to the beach, he said.

It was the city that advertised nationally for firms to consider opportunities on the bluff.

"When you show people you're serious about redevelopment, you're going to attract the big-league operators," Aungst said. "Before, talking about downtown was almost taboo. Nothing could ever pass a referendum. Nobody had ever come through with proposals like this."

But, he said, nobody had ever asked for them.

The Clearwater market

Several recently compiled surveys and studies indicate that Clearwater's downtown market could be ready for a major retail and/or entertainment anchor. Here are some statistics drawn from these reports:

Potential customers

There are 810,768 people living within 15 miles of downtown. About 38 percent of these residents are ages 25 to 50 with average household incomes of $52,031 -- a prime market for retailers and movie theaters.

The Church of Scientology says that each year, 10,000 to 15,000 people visit its facilities. About 21 percent of visitors had incomes of $200,000 or more.

About 4.4-million tourists visited the county last year. With median household incomes of about $65,957, they each spent about $526 on food and entertainment and $234 on retail purchases while here.

There are 131,414 people working within a 5-mile radius of the downtown, including 35,972 people in health services, 11,271 for government, 8,200 at eating and drinking establishments, 8,050 at business services and 6,406 in manufacturing.

What they would shop for

Half of 928 people surveyed by the city said they would shop for books, and nearly half would buy music on compact discs or gourmet food items if offered downtown. About three-fourths said they would shop at national clothing chains. About half said they would shop for casual clothing, rather than designer attire.

Given a choice of store brands, people want a Gap or Banana Republic store downtown selling moderately priced, practical apparel, a Church of Scientology study says. Other popular brands were Victoria's Secret, the Limited, TJ Maxx and a Nike or Reebok athletic shoe factory store.

About 1,006 people surveyed in the Scientology study also desired a movie theater, a Starbucks coffee shop, name brand restaurants such as Outback Steakhouse, a health food store and a bookstore downtown. (About two-thirds of responses to the survey were from Scientologists and the rest from government employees and other city residents.)

Another market analysis showed a better than average market for home furnishings in the immediate downtown area.

SOURCES: Retail and office space surveys provided by Clearwater city staff. Tourist figures from the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Market analyses provided to the city commissioned by Florida Power Corp. and the Church of Scientology.

It won't happen overnight

Here is a tentative schedule under which development on the bluff could move forward:

DECEMBER: Developers to be interviewed by a city staff committee.

JANUARY: Commission to review rankings and choose a developer to negotiate with.

FEBRUARY TO APRIL: Negotiations with the developer, public input on the components of the project and more market analysis to guide planning.

MAY: Another 90-day bargaining extension is possible, or the city can opt to start negotiations with the second-ranked developer.

SOMETIME IN 2000: If the city goes with its top ranked developer, residents would probably have to approve any development by referendum because of restrictions in the City Charter.

2000 OR 2001: Engineering and design might begin. Developers also would want to recruit all their major tenants before building.

2002 OR 2003: Construction might begin. Because of the project's possible complexity, construction couldn't start any sooner, developers say.

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