CLEARWATER – Growing up in Tarpon Springs, George Cretekos always knew that one day he wanted to call Clearwater home. It was the “big city.” It had the better tennis courts. It has the amazing beaches.
“I always thought Clearwater was that special place that I wanted to live somewhere. I keep pinching myself that not only do I live here, I’m its mayor,” Cretekos said.
Accomplishments so far
Now halfway into his first term as mayor, Cretekos recently reflected in his first two years as mayor and looked to the projects he still wants to accomplish.
Certainly one of the most challenging things he has had to deal with during his term has been working within budget restraints due to the lagging economy.
“We’ve been working under a relative flat budget for these two years I’ve been mayor, so we’ve had to be real careful in our spending and initiating new programs,” Cretekos said. “Because when you initiate a new program, sometimes we tend to forget that 10 years from now we have to continue to be paying for it, and we have to be careful about what those impacts will be down the road.”
Even though that limited some things that the local government could do, there are still lots that Cretekos is proud that he, the City Council, city staff and the city itself have been able to accomplish. One of the biggest things was a referendum to help bring new jobs to the city.
“With the residents’ approval, we had that referendum to give tax incentives to businesses that came to Clearwater with high paying jobs,” Cretekos said. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to bring in General Electric, and we’re working with a couple other companies that will also be doing the same. And if my memory is correct, of the communities in the Tampa Bay area and specifically in Pinellas County that passed similar legislation, we were the very first to have been able to recruit some businesses to use that program.”
While the plan gives businesses a tax break up front, the city is more than paid back over the long-term from benefits of having the company in town as well as bringing quality jobs to town.
“Also important to the city, it helps us diversify our economy,” Cretekos said. “Our tourism is always going to be No. 1 in Clearwater. We’re very appreciative of the community’s support in helping us get the Best Beach Town (award,) Best Place to Watch a Sunset (award,) and Best Attraction for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This will help the city not only promote but also Pinellas County to promote Clearwater and Pinellas County as the place to come for a family beach-oriented vacation. But we also have to try to diversify our economy a little bit. And this tax program allows us to do that.”
Cretekos said he is also proud of some of the green efforts the city has made, such as its single-stream recycling program and installing the solar belly garbage cans on the beach. The latter uses solar energy to compact trash and to alert collectors when they are full, therefore reducing how often they have to be serviced. Additionally, the city has also slowly been changing its vehicles to ones powered by natural gas, and Clearwater opened the county’s first natural gas filling station. The station has also been open for use by the public since 2012. Residents just need to fill out an application to gain access to the pump.
Another program that has been successful is the health clinic for city employees, Cretekos said. Clearwater has also allowed Dunedin’s city employees to use the clinic and share in the costs.
“We encourage our employees to be more healthy,” Cretekos said. “…What we’re finding is that in using the clinic, it’s more preventative – trying to lose weight or control blood pressure, and making these medications available to them so our employees can be more healthy. That serves us in terms of health insurance costs, it helps in terms of losing employees because they have to stay home because they’re not well.”
He is also proud that the city has been able to balance the budget without having to raise the millage rate, saving residents from any city-related tax increases. Last year the city did have to dip into some of its reserve funds, but that was because the city had not yet had a full year of savings from its new pension reform, Cretekos said. This current year a full year of savings will be reflected in the budget, so that will make a positive difference, he said.
Looking to the future
Going forward, the city will still need to be cautious with money at least for a few years, Cretekos said. This is especially true until the flood insurance situation is figured out. Fortunately for Clearwater, not all of its land is near the beach like some area beach town, but it still could be greatly affected if insurance rates skyrocket. However, there are still plenty of things to get excited about and things he wants to accomplish in his remaining term. For instance, 2015 is Clearwater’s centennial year, and city staff is working to partner with numerous events to have a year-long celebration, not just one big party.
But easily the biggest thing that Cretekos wants to get accomplished in the next two years is revitalizing Crest Lake Park, which sits between Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Cleveland Street.
“To me, more people drive by Crest Lake Park than almost any other place in Clearwater because it’s on the main thoroughfare,” Cretekos said. “I’ve been looking at Largo Central Park for so many years, and it just looks inviting. We need to be able to do that. To make Crest Lake Park a focal point to our residents and especially the neighborhood. I think it will help revitalize the area.”
The first step to this goal is already underway. In January, the Clearwater City Council approved an arrangement with the Tampa Bay Veterans Alliance to allow them to build a veterans memorial park at Crest Lake Park. Cretekos was the one who suggested the site to the Alliance, and he said he is thrilled that the council and the neighborhood have embraced the idea. He thinks that this memorial is crucial for the park, and that the buy-in from neighbors was imperative.
In addition to the memorial, the community will be asked to give feedback on their ideas for the park, Cretekos said. The city is in the process of creating a master plan for the parks and recreation department and is in the middle of compiling all the data that it has received.
“Parks are important to making a community feel good and making them proud of their area,” Cretekos said. “When you look at Moccasin Lake Park, when you look at the beach and some of our neighborhood parks, they’re serene, they’re tranquil, and you can take your family there. I want to make Crest Lake Park inviting, too.”
Other things Cretekos is excited about is building the new Countryside Library and talks that are going on with St. Petersburg College about doing a joint use for the East Library. Both facilities are in need of upgrades, he said. Additionally, he is proud of a recent award for the city’s U.S. 19 Corridor Master Plan and is excited for that project to be completed.
“We’re hoping that once that construction is completed – and we appreciate the efforts of the governor and Sen. (Jack) Latvala for putting that on the fast track for us so we can get that construction complete and that all of us can get used to the new U.S. 19.”
Cretekos said he is also thrilled by all the improvements that continue to be made to the Countryside area and especially the Westfield Countryside Mall.
“It continues to rank as one of the best malls, certainly in Pinellas County,” Cretekos said. “And pretty soon you may not have to go to the International Mall in Tampa. You can go to Countryside Mall in Clearwater.”
He is also excited to continue to foster the city’s relationship with the Phillies. It’s easy to take for granted how much this partnership benefits the city year round – not just during spring training, he said.
“They give back to the community and they bring people to the community,” Cretekos said. “And we’re recognized in Philadelphia and throughout the state as a place to come for vacation. Their economic impact is over $100 million. It’s huge. They stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, and the best part is they bring their families back later on.”
Things to still work on
If there’s one area that could still use some improvement so it can reach its full potential, Cretekos said it’s still downtown.
“Probably the downtown has been our biggest stumbling block for the longest time,” Cretekos said. “And the city has invested an awful lot of money into downtown. The streetscaping, with the Capitol Theatre, with the library. Now that Water’s Edge and Station Square are basically sold out, we’re hoping that we can get the apartment complex at Town Centre completed. With the church of Scientology completing its work on the Flag Building and with the anticipated success when the Clearwater Marine Aquarium opens, hopefully that will re-energize downtown. But the government cannot do it by itself. The property owners need to invest in their properties. We’re trying to attract high tech industries to the business. We’ve had some successes there and we will continue to do that.”
Throughout the years, the city has had a difficult time keeping the downtown lively at night. Currently one of the best ways to combat this is the newly renovated Capitol Theatre, Cretekos said. He has heard countless positive reviews of the new facility, and he said hopefully other businesses will realize that this is a natural draw for the downtown.
“I keep hearing, ‘Well, there are restaurants in Dunedin.’ Well, there can be restaurants in Clearwater, too,” Cretekos said. “I hear, ‘There’s no parking in Clearwater.’ Well, there’s plenty of parking in downtown Clearwater. More so than in Dunedin or Safety Harbor at night.”
Cretekos reminds people that parking both on the streets and in the parking garages are free at night, and he hopes that more businesses will invest in the downtown’s future. He appreciates businesses such as Tony’s Pizzaria and Chiang Mai Thai and Sushi Bar that have been there for a number of years and have done a lot for the downtown.
One thing that Cretekos said he wishes could have gone differently and hopes can be improved in his remaining time in office is the city’s relationship and communication with the church of Scientology.
“The church needs to understand that it is a partner with the city of Clearwater,” Cretekos said. “It may not want to be our partner, but it is. And we, on both sides, have to be able to talk openly with each other and try to understand each other’s responsibilities. I was very upset that the church would do certain things that I wouldn’t want my church to do. Just ignoring city rules and regulations. We worked through that. But it would have been a whole lot easier for all of us if we worked through them first.”
Cretekos was referring to several incidents, including illegal signage, and chopping down two healthy 20-foot-tall live oak trees without permission. The church ended up paying the fines, but the trees are gone and Cretekos would have preferred better communication and cooperation.
In certain instances, if the church is in violation of city rules, the city can withhold granting it permits that it asks for. But if has paid all the fines, then the city cannot hold past violations over the church for future requests.
“If they do something with the right hand that we don’t like, when they come with the left hand asking for something, we can’t say no just because,” Cretekos said. “Because let’s say you come in and ask for the same thing and we let you do it but we don’t let the church do it. That’s not being fair. And the one thing we try to be as a city is fair to everybody. We have to treat everybody equally. So while we may be furious with them over cutting down the trees, we can’t use that as a reason to penalize them for their next request.”
Better communication and a partnership is the ultimate goal, and Cretekos hopes that both parties can find a happy middle point going forward.
A desire to serve
For Cretekos, he always knew he wanted to be involved in government. Initially he wanted to be a city manager, but he always wanted to help improve the community in this way.
“Government’s always been to me, a way of serving people,” Cretekos said. “And I just felt that it was my calling. And I’ve been blessed that I’ve been given the opportunity to realize that dream.”
Cretekos began working for Rep. C.W. Bill Young in January of 1971, so he just celebrated his 43rd year in politics. As for what he wants to do next, Cretekos isn’t thinking about that yet.
“Ever since I started working for the congressman, I took it one day at a time,” Cretekos said. “I do the best that I can do for that day. I gave thanks every day for the trust that the congressman had in me and now that the people have in me. And I just pray that I will learn from my mistakes and continue to try to do the best that I can every day. It seems philosophical but it’s really true.”
Obviously at other levels of government, the political climate has been polarized and nasty for many years. However, at the city level, Cretekos is glad that the positions are not partisan and that people still work together.
“My colleagues on the council and I, we disagree often, but we respect each other and we move on because we each give a lot,” Cretekos said. “We’re viewing things from a little different perspective, and we learn from each other, and we understand that we’re not going to agree all the time on everything.”
Cretekos added – only half jokingly – that the way to get that message up to the other levels of politics is to throw away smartphones and to throw away the Internet. People read things on the Internet and immediately believe it to be true, he said, but the information may be anywhere from true to only partially true to completely false. That fuels polarization.
“When I was working with the congressman, people would come up to us and say, ‘If you vote this way, I will never vote for you again.’ And we would look at them and say, ‘But we agree 99 percent of the time.’ And they would say it doesn’t matter. Well, that’s not how government works. And we have to realize that sometimes compromise is not a bad word. This country, this form of government is founded on the basis of compromise. I guess that would be the message to the national leadership.”
Cretekos carries this message of cool-headedness and respect to local constituents as well when it comes to what he would hope to communicate to the public and how he hopes to impact the city.
“(I’d like to communicate) just my appreciation for their trust and confidence and realizing that they’re not going to agree with me all the time, but hoping that they understand,” Cretekos said. “But still respect me for the decisions and the things that I do, and forgive me if I do something wrong in their eyes. … I’m not perfect. I don’t pretend to be. But I want you (the public) to feel comfortable with me and in what we try to do together.”