INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — For well over a year, Forward Pinellas, the county’s planning organization, has been working with residents and city leaders on a visioning process aimed at discovering what they want their city to look like five, 10 or 15 years down the road.
On Aug. 11, it presented its findings during a special commission workshop. Nothing in the report uncovered anything most residents didn’t already know, but getting to it wasn’t easy.
Whit Blanton, the executive director of Forward Pinellas, said the year they spent gathering and analyzing the information was a tough one.
“This is a unique beach community,” he said. “It was difficult at times because there were so many voices in the room. We got a lot of feedback, honest feedback.”
The economics of IRB was one of the topics that rose to the top of their investigation. Project manager Christina Mendoza said particular attention had to be paid to the businesses in town.
“Over 43% of the businesses are small businesses,” she said. “They employ between one and four employees. The city should find a way to help these businesses especially in this time of COVID-19.”
Mendoza said the city should find a way to enhance commercial areas, especially the business triangle in the center of town. She said there was room there for more restaurants. She also noted that the city should ease up on parking restrictions to make it easier for people to visit the area. That was an ironic recommendation considering the city tightened its parking regulations the previous week because of residents’ demands.
Blanton also talked about the idea of establishing a grocery store in the city. Answering a question from a resident who called into the virtual meeting, Blanton said it was never thought that a large supermarket, such as Publix, would be built in IRB, but a smaller specialty store might work.
“We do know, however, that such stores have certain expectations regarding profits and the like,” he said. “Such a store was built in Dunedin, but they had to give a lot, they had to make a public investment.”
That investment he said came in the form of a rent subsidy in Dunedin where rent is high. He cautioned IRB officials that they might have to consider that if they wanted to attract a significant grocery store.
In the year Forward Pinellas did the study, there were three full workshops held with public participation, 15 interviews with residents of all types and five focus groups.
Despite all of that, the meeting on Aug. 11 elicited many of the same old complaints that residents had been presenting to the City Commission for years.
The parking issue came up several times by people who called into the meeting. Eventually, City Manager Gregg Mims had to ask those people to call him directly to discuss the issue because specific parking woes were not part of the agenda.
Short-term rentals were part of the agenda and there was no shortage of people complaining about them and the disruption they bring to the neighborhoods. They had to be reminded by Mims that there was not much the city could do because the state had laws that prevented local governments from restricting short-term rentals.
At the end of the meeting, the commissioners had the opportunity to weigh in.
Commissioner Ed Hoofnagle noted that the report indicated that the city’s Land Development Code would have to be looked at to accommodate some recommendations. He urged caution.
“Do we really want more people and cars in our community?” he wondered. “These recommendations need to be balanced with reality.”
He also spoke against the use of e-scooters because of safety concerns and said he was against mixed-use development if it led to more short-term rentals.
“I will not support it and I will do my best to stop it,” he said.
Commissioner Diane Flagg noted that buying land for more green space was not something she would support.
“We have more green space along our beach accesses and parks than most beach communities,” she said. “I’m against spending any more money for land we do not need.”
Commissioner Joe McCall spoke on behalf of the small businesses in town.
“It has been a tough year for those businesses,” he said. “Anything the city can do to help them should be done; they create the atmosphere here in Indian Rocks Beach.”
Vice-Mayor Phil Hanna said the future for him would be to maintain the city’s charm.
“There is no sense in reinventing the wheel,” he said. “We have a small-town charm and we have to keep it by maintaining guidelines in development.”
Mayor Cookie Kennedy, a small business owner located in the Triangle district, wants the city to be mindful of the small businesses.
“There are 30 businesses in our 2.5 miles,” she said. “Most are struggling; we should be looking forward to help.”
She also wanted to make sure the future was concerned with bicycle and pedestrian safety along Gulf Boulevard.
Mims concluded the meeting by asking Forward Pinellas to formulate a final report and he and the city planner would come up with ideas on how the commission should put them into action. He expects that to happen sometime in October.