CLEARWATER – City economic development leaders made one last pitch to their bosses for the purchase of a parcel of property they’ve identified as vital to the activation and future growth of downtown Clearwater.
Clearwater city council members were presented with a number of reasons why moving forward with the purchase of a 1.4-acre parcel of land located adjacent to City Hall would be in the best interest of the city as it sets the stage for a $55 million redevelopment plan for its underutilized downtown waterfront area.
The property, located at 301 Pierce St., was purchased by Clearwater Marine Aquarium a number of years ago in anticipation of building a new aquarium in downtown Clearwater. CMA, instead, decided to renovate its current facility on Island Estates and put the property on the market.
With the recent approval of the city’s downtown bluffs master plan — Imagine Clearwater — city leaders agreed earlier this year to move forward with the purchase of the property, which would give the city a contiguous tract of 2.1 acres of property along the north and south sides of Pierce Street between Osceola Avenue and the waterfront.
However, a failure to advertise the intent to purchase correctly has caused the delay in the purchase.
Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne addressed council members during a workshop on April 17 at City Hall prior to the council’s planned vote on the purchase, which was scheduled for April 20.
“City and mayor as you are aware, the city of Clearwater has had a long-standing interest in this CMA parcel from a highest and best use perspective,” Horne said. “We have shared this perspective with all of the downtown stakeholders and property owners. This is really not a surprise to anyone.”
Economic Development and Housing director Denise Sanderson told council members the purchase of the property would give the city the unique opportunity to compete against other communities that have more readily available real estate for purchase.
“From a policy perspective, economic development is best defined as the efforts to seek to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for a community,” Sanderson said.
“Because economic growth will follow the path of least resistance, fully built out communities such as Clearwater will find difficulty competing against those communities where green fields are abundant,” she added. “Therefore, when the opportunity arises, the acquisition and preservation of land for desired use is an appropriate and widely-used economic development practice.
“As an economic development professional, my goal is to provide analysis and recommendation based on policy and strategies that drive economic growth for the city of Clearwater. Therefore, it’s my recommendation the city acquire and preserve this land and when appropriate, make it available for desired development that meets our community’s economic development objectives,” Sanderson said.
Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor urged council members to look to the future of what downtown might be one day.
“I first would like to note that this is truly a signature parcel that is located on a defining land feature of our city,” Taylor said. “It is contiguous with a city-owned parcel; it’s adjacent to city hall. It’s on our waterfront bluff. You could not ask for a better location than this particular piece of property.
“This is an opportunity for our city to do some real city building,” Taylor continued. “We have an opportunity to develop this parcel and create a new skyline for our downtown. It’s an exciting opportunity for the city of Clearwater.”
The decision to move forward with the purchase of the property is not as cut-and-dry as it might seem.
The coveted property has also drawn the interest of the Church of Scientology, which hopes to develop the parcel into a swimming pool and playground for guests of its adjacent hotel, The Oak Cove.
Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige hosted a series of private, one-on-one meetings between city council members where he outlined plans that would revitalize downtown Cleveland Street by focusing on developing retail businesses and the creation of a downtown entertainment center. Miscavige also implied in meetings with city officials that the Church would be willing to fund – perhaps even at 100 percent – the facade overhaul for the Cleveland Street District in an effort to update old buildings that have a lot of character.
In return for this, according to council members, the Church is seeking to purchase the Pierce Street lot.
Its interest is so great, in fact, that it has offered CMA $15 million for the land, far and above the city’s offer of $4.25 million.
Council members are expected to vote on the land purchase during their regular meeting on April 20.
Logan Mosby is editor of the Clearwater Beacon. She can be reached at lmosby@TBNweekly.com or by calling 727-397-5563, ext. 304.