After a bitter fight, opponents of the $300-million Clearwater redevelopment plan prevail.
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
St. Petersburg Times
July 12, 2000
CLEARWATER -- Voters soundly rejected an ambitious $300-million plan to remake the face of downtown Clearwater Tuesday, dealing a stinging setback to city officials hoping to rejuvenate the city's core.
Asked to approve leasing city-owned waterfront land to developers for 99 years for as little as $1 per year, voters said no by a 58 percent to 42 percent tally.
The decision, which shocked city officials and civic boosters who had openly predicted victory in the afternoon, capped a divisive campaign in which both sides traded accusations of distortion and outright lying.
But in the end, both sides agreed the vote showed the reluctance of the Tampa Bay area's third largest city to embrace change.
"Historically, these kinds of big initiatives have a horrible track record in Clearwater," Mayor Brian Aungst said. "It would have been a remarkable upset, if we had been successful. But at least we had the guts, we had courage, to try to bring it forward. I don't know we'll ever have another plan like this."
The proposal would have created up to $40-million in developer-financed public improvements downtown, such as a much larger waterfront park with a new concert amphitheater and city pier.
But city land would have been leased to the developers for 99 years. The move was requested by developers who said they needed the incentive to make money on their plans to build a downtown multiplex movie theater, 1,200 new apartments and condominiums, public parking garages and up to 300,000 square feet of new retail space.
Even though two other referendum questions passed, Tuesday's vote means the developers are leaving town. And city officials have no alternative to offer.
"I truly do not have an idea what we are going to do now," City Manager Mike Roberto said.
A group of former city commissioners dubbed Save the Bayfront led the fight against the concept. They played on fear that the Church of Scientology, whose spiritual headquarters is downtown, might benefit from the plan.
They also argued that the city couldn't be trusted to complete a deal with developers George de Guardiola and David Frisbie of West Palm Beach.
"I think the vote showed that the people of Clearwater are very intelligent people, that they like the low-key, laid-back atmosphere of Clearwater and that they are smart enough to figure that you don't have a 99-year lease for a $1-a-year and consider that you are accomplishing anything," Save the Bayfront spokeswoman Anne Garris said.
Aungst complained that city staff counted about 100 untruths and inaccuracies in Save the Bayfront's campaign materials over the past two months. He wondered if the negative campaigning had unfairly swayed the results.
"It shows fear works," said Doug Williams, who was involved with Citizens for a Better Clearwater, a group that fought for the redevelopment plan.
Clearwater voters did narrowly approve two other aspects of the downtown plan: issuing $15-million in bonds to build a city library and swapping some city land for a plot owned by Calvary Baptist Church. The swap would have helped the congregation leave its downtown sanctuary.
But now, neither the city's new main library nor Calvary's move may happen.
Without the rest of the downtown plan, several city commissioners said Tuesday night, the city may lack the money -- and the desire -- to build a new library.
And Calvary Baptist Church was counting on the developers to buy its historic sanctuary so the church could move to a new home.
Now the developers are headed out of town.
De Guardiola took the stage at downtown's Royalty Theater Tuesday night to make that announcement at what was supposed to be a victory party.
Instead, surrounded by red velvet drapes, de Guardiola spoke emotionally, his eyes moist.
"We've given so many presentations, and so many speeches, so this should feel comfortable, but it's not," said de Guardiola, who spent the last three months with his partner giving more than 60 presentations to various community groups, trying to sell his plan.
The process of community involvement was unprecedented, de Guardiola said.
Yet only 32 percent of the city's possible voters turned out. That was just not enough people to overcome the core group of senior citizen voters who opposed the plan, de Guardiola said.
"This is where the plan ends," de Guardiola concluded. "We have no plan B."
The audience gave de Guardiola and Frisbie a standing ovation. After the speeches, an 11-piece Latin dance band played for anyone who felt like dancing. No one did.
Roberto, the city manager, left the party at the Royalty Theater before the final results were shown on a large-screen television. It was obvious quickly the downtown plan was dead.
"Ask them what they won," Roberto said later.
Roberto wouldn't say whether he believes the referendum result had been in some ways about him. Several public opinion polls, including two commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times, have showed public uneasiness about his administration, which has aggressively pushed to redevelop Clearwater over the past three years.
"Any time you bring new ideas to the table, some will be embraced and some of them aren't," Roberto said.
Aungst said that the city will need to address the issue of public trust now that the referendum results are in.
Discussion on that begins today. On Tuesday, it was people like Roger Schaffer who carried the day. Schaffer stopped by the Sheraton Sand Key Resort to cast his ballot. He had heard the developer's plan to bring in restaurants and retailers, but, unimpressed, the 57-year-old voted against redevelopment.
"I don't think there's anything they can do to change what downtown Clearwater is," Schaffer said. "I don't see fine restaurants going in. I don't see high quality. . . . We're a conservative community made up in large part by a lot of retirees.
"If I want to have a big night," Schaffer said, "I go to Tampa."
-- Times staff writer Sharon Tubbs contributed to this report.