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Clearwater’s new downtown boss driven by dual passions

CLEARWATER — As the city’s new Community Redevelopment Agency director, Amanda Thompson’s main charge is to help revive the struggling downtown. It’s a feat nobody has been able to achieve.

Thompson, 39, has embedded in her role by renting an apartment in the Nolen on Cleveland Street so she can walk to her office in City Hall. She doesn’t even own a car.

In a decade with Decatur, Ga.’s, planning department, she reshaped land use codes and helped bring $150 million of mixed use development to the downtown. A professional choreographer, she moved to Miami in 2015 to oversee $2 million in arts grants across four cities for the Knight Foundation. Now she’s hoping to combine creativity with government for Clearwater’s revival. She started Jan. 31 and replaces Seth Taylor, who resigned in October after only 15 months on the job.

Why did you want to become Clearwater’s CRA director?

I have dual passions, the arts and local government. Decatur experienced a large growth spurt from 2006 to 2016, just an immense amount of downtown redevelopment. As part of that you saw creative placemaking to use arts and culture to attract economic development to build a sense of community. I had just finished doing the unified development ordinance over all land use and zoning codes to tie into that community vision. After that project I was ready to delve more in the arts side of the world. I joined the Knight Foundation in Miami to work on funding of the arts. I also developed a national dance initiative. I wanted that experience so I could come back to local government to work on creative placemaking and integrate the arts and planning and economic development. I love getting to know the business owners, the residents and to have the opportunity to work with all these different stakeholders to build an amazing downtown.

What are your initial impressions of downtown so far?

What struck me the most was all the people that are so passionate about downtown Clearwater. Everybody really loves this city and they really want to see different things happen downtown to make it more vibrant. It’s also a very clean and safe place. I’ve traveled a lot, been in a lot of different cities and Clearwater is really well maintained. I love what’s happening on Cleveland Street. That’s an excellent traffic calming streetscaping project.

Do you like the $55 million Imagine Clearwater waterfront redevelopment plan?

I do, but more importantly, the community does. There was an overwhelming majority saying this is the right direction, this is the right plan. Now it’s on all of us to keep it going and find the funding.

Clearwater has long struggled to fill storefronts and bring vibrancy downtown. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know I’ve been here long enough to pinpoint exact reasons. I know I want to be more proactive about parking. Whether it’s the perception there’s too much or not enough, do people know where to park, do they feel comfortable walking a few blocks? With every historic town ... you have property owners that maybe their building is not up to code. Building codes change, and they need technology or financial assistance and guidance on how to make their buildings more attractive for today’s tenants. Those are a couple of conversations I’ve heard bubble up.

What are your main priorities coming in?

In other cities what works is really deep community engagement, and that’s personally important to me. Making sure all stakeholders, the people passionate about downtown, that we’re listening to them, that we understand their hopes and dreams and their challenges and barriers. I see it as our role to facilitate those discussions and bring some focus on how we are going to spend not only our funds but our time. Also continuing the work of streetscaping and that investment in public infrastructure that makes downtown a walkable, esthetically beautiful place. That’s something the private sector can’t do.

The former CRA director started an incentive program in June, offering $250,000 grants for businesses to locate downtown. Nobody has bit. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know why something hasn’t moved forward yet. I’d say that’s something that in the next 30 days I’m going to be well aware of how it was set up and how it’s working.

Do you support the concept of business incentives?

I do when they are structured in a way that is truly filling a gap that a private market can’t meet. There’s a clear distinction between what is controlled and can be handled by a public entity, like the streetscape example, and what’s something that’s more of a function of the private market. If someone wants to open a business for the first time, they have to go to a bank and convince the loan officer they have a good business plan. Somewhere in there is incentives and I think what we’re going to be figuring out is what is that right place in the middle for Clearwater.

The Church of Scientology is downtown’s largest property owner and has cut most communication with the city. What do you think that relationship should be like going forward?

In Decatur we had several large institutional property owners. We had the independent school system, several churches, the county facilities, Agnes Scott College. The way I look at it is they are an institutional property owner and they have their needs and their vision for what they’d like to do with their campus. It’s our job to maintain positive relationships and try to keep finding a win-win. I’m a 100-year-view kind of person. We’re not making decisions only to make it to the next quarter or next year. We’re making investments and building relationships that last 100 years. When you have that kind of view, you want to make sure you treat everybody with respect and try to have integrity in your relationships.

What else do you want people to know about you?

Transparency is extremely important to me. I am open to meeting with anybody and listening. We are here to bring residents and businesses downtown. We want to do what we can to help make that happen, but transparency is critical. To that end, my door is always open.

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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Clearwater’s new downtown boss driven by dual passions