CLEARWATER — In December, city leaders approved several cost-saving changes to rein in the budget for the Imagine Clearwater redevelopment plan. Most notably, the City Council abandoned a $6.42 million project to renovate the Main Library.

A $1.48 million project to light up the Memorial Causeway Bridge with hundreds of LEDs in a spectrum of colors will suffer the same fate, council members decided Feb. 18.

At least for now, that is, in order to maintain funding for the core elements of the $65 million Coachman Park project.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said he supports the dynamic lighting proposed for the bridge, but he wasn’t sure if the timing is right since so many funding questions remain for many elements of the park project. 

“I think we need to keep the main thing the main thing,” he said. “And to me, the main thing is the park itself.”

He added, however, that he thinks the project will come to fruition soon. Therefore, while the park is under construction, he suggested proceeding with putting in the infrastructure to control the lights, which includes a conduit and control board in the back of the amphitheater.

Council member Hoyt Hamilton agreed that it was only a matter of time before the city went forward with the plan.

“I do say the bridge will have these lights in the final product,” he said. “Now the final product might be five years down the road, but I think these lights are an asset to the bridge, the community, the park.”

Park amenities

The decision on the bridge occurred in the context of another discussion about the amenities for the new Coachman Park.

To get the project back to the $65 million mark, city planners and engineers in December had to scale back some of those features, such as: 

• The splash pad was reduced from 112 fountain jets to 56 jets in order to save as much as almost $257,000. 

• Some playground elements were removed to save $676,000.

• Custom shade structures were reduced in height and simplified to save more than $1.6 million.

• Covered picnic tables were removed to save just over $135,000.

• A building at the civic gateway that could be occupied by a box office, pump room, restrooms, or first aid room was removed to save $1.7 million.

• Cascading water stairs at the gateway to the park were removed, saving almost $853,000.

• The size and quantity of the park plantings and gardens were reduced to save $363,000.

• Stairs along the seawall providing direct access to the Intracoastal Waterway were removed to save just over $953,000. 

Council members agreed that most of those decisions were reasonable, but they did take issue with some during a Feb. 16 work session.

In stating his case, Hibbard quoted his late father.

“Quality remains long after the price is forgotten,” he said “He always said that with big purchases to me when I was a kid. And this is a project that we are going to live with for hopefully generations.

“There are certain things that I think should be added back in, and I’m willing to pay the price.”

For instance, he singled out the cascading water stairs at the entrance to the park in order to make a lasting impression on visitors.

Council member Kathleen Beckman said she is a proponent of making the park as family friendly as possible, so she was also concerned about scaling back the splash pad and playground areas.

Hibbard agreed, adding that splash pads are always a popular attraction for children. Staff noted, however, that even the reduced size was larger than any in the area.

Former council member Bill Jonson said the amenities were needed in order for it to succeed. 

“The recent drawings are short of creating the expected exciting experiences that will attract lots of folks to the park all day, every day. Not just when there’s a concert,” he said.

A consensus of council members agreed that they would like to reimplement some features, but Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell pointed out that the city doesn’t currently have a funding source for them and they would need to come from general fund reserves. 

Assistant City Manager Michael Delk suggested those amenities could be funded through donations, naming rights or sponsorships and could also be added to the park later.

“Most of those things could be added relatively easily in the future,” he said.

He added that there are still many question marks surrounding the funding for needed infrastructure items, such as the audio/video equipment and seating for the bandshell, security cameras, utilities, electric vehicle charging stations, and fencing.  

Until those numbers can be pinned down, he urged the council to wait until mid-March to decide on whether to add back certain amenities.

“I would suggest that right now trying to limit our costs until we can determine definitively what they’re going to end up being,” he said. 

The city expected to receive the final engineering plans by the end of March, so Hibbard said at some point they need to stop tinkering.

With funding from the bridge project now available, Vice Mayor David Allbritton said it’s time to prioritize the park.

“The No. 1 thing is the park,” he said. “Let’s do it right. Let’s do the things right. Let’s don’t cut corners.”