CLEARWATER — The city of Clearwater has seen both highs and lows over the last year as officials worked to make the city’s motto of “Bright and Beautiful from Bay to Beach” into a tangible reality.

The city’s expansive waterfront redesign project grew even larger this year, with the approval of considerable changes to Coachman Park, which will include a concert pavilion canopy that will seat 4,000.

However, the very public mishandling of funds in the parks and recreation department, as well as questions surrounding the future of Phillies Spring Training in the city, have been dark clouds in an otherwise sunny sky.

With the upcoming March elections, where residents will vote for a new mayor and two people for council seats, efforts to revitalize downtown may change course.

But one thing is certain — times they are a’changing.

Future of Imagine Clearwater uncertain

City residents got a sneak preview of the $65 million “Imagine Clearwater” waterfront redesign in early December. The city is well on its way to bringing the $55 million redevelopment plan it approved two years ago into fruition.

Included in that effort was the approval of a $5.6 million work order for the design, permitting, and construction services for the revitalization of Coachman Park, which upon completion will be renamed Coachman Commons.

Following months of indecision, Clearwater council members gave their support for the development of a concert pavilion with a canopy that will cover more than 4,000 seats.

There are plans in the works to rebrand Clearwater’s signature park, Coachman Park, to Coachman Commons, which will encompass all the city-owned properties west of North Osceola Avenue between Drew Street and Pierce Street. The park will include a large lawn for picnicking music fans, a half-mile bluff walk, a waterfront walkway, gardens and nature pond.

Coachman Commons will be “a public space available 365 days a year with art, events, and activations for residents and visitors alike,” said deputy city manager Michael Delk during a preview of open meetings for residents to voice their opinions.

But plans may be in limbo as residents await the results of the upcoming March 2020 mayoral and city council elections.

When the City Council voted to approve $30 million in bonds to pay for Imagine Clearwater in late November, it knew those bonds wouldn’t be ready before the next election cycle. On March 17 residents will vote for a new mayor and two people for council seats — possibly replacing a majority of the five-member panel.

Of the 13 candidates running for office, one has said if elected he would consider nixing the project outright.

Of the remaining 12, at least six candidates suggested they could scale it back, including two who criticized the planned, 4,000-seat amphitheater.

In other news relating to the project, longtime parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar was fired by City Manager Bill Horne in December, following three investigations in 2019 that uncovered oversight and management lapses.

The city council also saw the departure of longtime deputy city manager Jill Silverboard. Silverboard left the city of Clearwater after 12 years of service to accept a position as deputy Pinellas County administrator and chief of staff.

Silverboard cited the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming 2020 elections as one reason for her departure.

City debuts new parking technology

When the City Council OK’d nearly a half-million dollars for 65 reconditioned parking pay stations on in October, the city stepped into the future of parking.

The $458,900 the city will spend on refurbished Cale parking pay stations and attendant software will make it not only easier on drivers to pay for parking, it will also help the city track its non-paying customers.

Instead of putting coins in a meter and walking back to the car to place a paper parking receipt under the front windshield, drivers will now enter their license plate numbers into the new parking kiosks and walk away. The new “Pay by Plate” system also lets patrons pay for parking using the ParkMobile parking app, which also lets drivers extend their parking session from the phone without having to run back to the pay station. The app also texts reminders to drivers when the parking term is about to expire, city officials said.

High-tech university opens its doors

Nova Southeastern University opened its doors in August and welcomed students to class in the area’s newest higher education facility.

The new campus was made possible through a $230 million donation to NSU — $80 million in gifts and a $150 investment in real estate and facilities from Drs. Kiran C. and Pallavi Patel. Its grounds comprise 27 acres and 325,000 square feet of classrooms, faculty offices, a dining hall and other amenities, said university officials. The multi-level parking garage behind the sweeping, green-glass architecture of the main building has parking for some 1,300 vehicles.

Future of Phillies funding unknown

The city is still awaiting news of a funding request to the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council for renovations and improvements to Spectrum Field, as part of an agreement between the city and the Philadelphia Phillies, who host Spring Training in Clearwater.

The city has asked Pinellas County to kick in money from the bed tax fund to help pay for $40 million in improvements to Spectrum Field and the Carpenter Complex of four baseball fields, training facilities, and offices. What the county and state don’t throw in may have to come from city coffers.

The improvements to the ballparks and player facilities are designed to woo the Phillies, who the city hopes will agree to a 20-year lease extension until 2043. Clearwater has hosted the team’s spring training since 1948.

A hero’s welcome

Two dozen military statues, which stand 6 feet tall, were placed in a 100-foot circle around a 4-foot-high memorial 10 miles off the coast of Sand Key beach. The 5,830-pound monument in the center of the circle features five bronze emblems, each representing one of the U.S. armed forces — Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard.

The project, known as “Circle of Heroes,” is the nation’s first underwater dive memorial honoring veterans, and its supporters hope it will serve not just as a memorial and tourist attraction, but also as a therapeutic dive site for disabled veterans suffering from PTSD, depression and trauma.

Cultural center holds grand opening

After years of fundraising and hard work by dedicated society volunteers, the Clearwater Historical Society Museum and Cultural Center opened on June 15, when the society hosted the public, including history lovers and local leaders, at its unveiling.

The tidy, gray masonry building at 610 S. Fort Harrison Ave. stands as pristine as it did when it was newly built in 1907. The two-story, lighted interior, which once contained public school classrooms for students of the South Ward Elementary School, will now contain artifacts and images collected over the years by the Clearwater Historical Society.