CLEARWATER – After a decade of discussions with the city of Clearwater, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce will get its welcome center at the base of the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
At its regular meeting April 18, the City Council gave its OK for the Chamber to lease the first floor of the Florida Department of Transportation Building at 3204 Gulf to Bay Blvd., which sits smack dab at the future trailhead for the $23 million Courtney Campbell Recreational Trail.
The new welcome center replaces one razed in 2009, when the Chamber had to abandon an aging house trailer that served as a visitor welcome and information center at the foot of the causeway from Tampa.
“Our Courtney Campbell Visitor Center was beyond the expiration of its useful life, having been donated to us years before, and we made the tough decision to close the center and demolish the building,” Carol Hague, president and CEO of the Clearwater Regional Chamber, told the Beacon. “In the years since, I have regularly asked the city about resurrecting a spot on the Courtney Campbell Causeway for a visitor information center.”
The Chamber won’t be charged a monthly lease, but will pay for the buildout of a new Chamber Welcome Center on the site. The Chamber will also pay the costs of building and maintaining public bathrooms for hikers and bicyclists once a pedestrian bridge links the trail on the south side of the bridge to the north side of the road, where the Chamber facility will be located.
The city will pay for the maintenance of the building’s roof and grounds, Parks and Recreation Planner Michael Lavery told the council.
The proposed welcome center also will have parking for motorists looking for the first public bathroom after the long drive over the causeway to Clearwater, Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar told the council. There is room for about 100 parking spaces at the site.
The center also will be the site of a trailhead for the Pinellas County trail system, linking it with other bike and hiking trails like the Bayshore Trail toward Safety Harbor, the Ream Wilson Trail, which will run from Tampa Bay to the Gulf of Mexico in Clearwater, and of course, the Pinellas Trail, which parallels the Gulf Coast in Pinellas County.
The lease agreement is the second big change the business organization has made in recent weeks.
In early April, Clearwater’s two Chambers — the regional Chamber in the downtown and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce on the beach — announced they would combine their offices.
The Beach Chamber, which operates a visitor’s center at 333C S. Gulfview Blvd., was formed more than 20 years ago when beach business owners decided the regional Chamber wasn’t serving their needs. They split from the Regional Chamber and centered their operations on the beach strand on the other side of the Clearwater Memorial Causeway from downtown. The two organizations operated with separate, but overlapping membership, two golf tournaments, two fundraising dinners, and two visitor guides for tourists.
City Councilman David Allbritton liked the location of a future welcome center.
“It’s a great spot for the Chamber and the trail connection to the causeway,” he said. “This is a fantastic idea.”
“Discussion has been ongoing with the Chamber about two years to make this happen,” Dunbar told the council. “It’s come to fruition.”
“Now that the two Chambers are going to marry, this will benefit the beach and the other (business) members as well,” Clearwater Mayor George N. Cretekos said.
Hague said the Courtney Campbell location is great for directing drivers to Clearwater hotels and other businesses as soon as they pull into the visitor center’s parking lot on the west shore of Tampa Bay.
“The car count driving past our new location is tens of thousands of cars per day,” she said. “This presents a stellar opportunity to all types of business, attractions and hospitality hosts to showcase and advertise their services.”
The welcome center in the former DOT building should be renovated and operating by the fourth quarter of 2019, Hague told the Beacon.