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Aquarium vote could determine the future of downtown Clearwater

CLEARWATER — To its supporters, a proposed $160-million aquarium to be built in the heart of the city could become downtown Clearwater’s calling card to a world of tourists that mostly speed by on their way to sandy beaches.

For critics of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s plans, even if the attraction is a hit, it will do nothing to enhance the lives of city merchants and residents who expect thousands of cars clogging downtown’s already cramped streets driven by tourists who may drop in to see movie star dolphin Winter and promptly head back to the beach.

The city’s focus should be on enhancing life for residents and drawing more urban housing. A 200,000-square-foot tourist attraction just doesn’t fit here, they say.

Putting aside arguments over the value of the public land where the aquarium would be built or the validity of attendance projections, Tuesday’s referendum on leasing the City Hall property can be seen more broadly as a vote on downtown’s future development.

“You need a catalyst in downtown,” said Frank Hibbard, the former mayor who sits on the aquarium’s board of directors.

“We don’t have that attraction right now in downtown. We’ve got a pretty waterfront that’s very underutilized.”

On Tuesday, residents must vote on giving the city permission to enter into a 60-year lease with the aquarium on the City Hall property, located atop a bluff overlooking Coachman Park and Clearwater Harbor.

The lease terms hashed out in a nonbinding memorandum of understanding include the aquarium paying for a new city hall building, followed by $250,000 a year for the remainder of the term.

If residents vote yes, the aquarium would have until Aug. 1, 2016, to secure financing, and City Council would still have to give final approval. City Council members have unanimously praised the aquarium plan as having the potential to transform downtown, which has struggled to sustain businesses since beach traffic was diverted to Court Street years ago, allowing motorists to bypass the city center.

The city has been pursuing a four-pronged plan to revitalize downtown for several years now that includes investing in infrastructure projects, attracting residential development, drawing more events and retailers and enticing technology companies to move in.

Those initiatives have had mixed results. Trees and landscape design on Cleveland Street and Myrtle Avenue have improved aesthetics, but these corridors are still often devoid of foot traffic.

The two condominiums built in recent years, Water’s Edge and Station Square, have filled up with residents but only after the real estate market tanked and prices fell. A multiuse apartment complex is currently in the works just west of downtown on Cleveland.

Events such as Blast Friday or the downtown farmer’s market bring people out for a few hours, but then there’s little else to do afterward.

Hibbard sees this problem as evidence of why the aquarium needs to come downtown.

“You have to have something that’s constantly drawing people,” he said.

Vocal aquarium critic Tom Petersen, who lives downtown in Water’s Edge, says he’s skeptical the attraction will draw the large crowds that have been projected. Even if they come, though, he doubts the target demographic, families with children, would wander around downtown after they see Winter.

“Downtown Clearwater will never be a tourist attraction. You can go anywhere in Florida and be in a city,” said Petersen, who has sued the city over the ballot language in the referendum.

“The attraction in Clearwater is the beach; that’s why people come here.”

The only thing that will bring a permanent change to downtown’s economy is more permanent residents, he says.

Carl Schrader, president of the Clearwater Neighborhood Coalition, says there’s a “garden variety” of perspectives on the aquarium lease among the city’s neighborhood associations — something that should be expected when the downtown waterfront is involved.

“When it involves the bluff, there’s usually a fight,” said Schrader, recalling a failed 2000 referendum to offer a larger swath of the waterfront, including Coachman Park, up for a multiuse development.

Schrader is personally against the downtown aquarium and favors saving the City Hall parcel for public use as a possible extension of the nearby park.

“It’s not something that fits with what’s down there,” said Schrader, who lives in a Clearwater suburb near the Largo city limits.

He’s told City Council members that popular aquariums, like one his family visits in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, are successful because they’re already surrounded by myriad shops, restaurants and other entertainment options.

Leaders of Clearwater’s Chamber of Commerce think the aquarium can help bring more energy downtown.

“I think the aquarium’s going to create this hustle and bustle in downtown that’s going to be a huge economic driver,” said Nick DiCeglie, chair of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.

DiCeglie heads a political action committee, Friends of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, organized to increase public support ahead of the referendum.

With filming of a “Dolphin Tale” sequel underway, aquarium officials say there’s ample evidence of their brand’s potential for spurring tourism growth. Visitation to the current aquarium on Island Estates skyrocketed after the release of the first film, spurring jobs at the facility and inspiring the expansion plan, they say.

If voters turn them down Tuesday, Hibbard says they’ll push forward with their plan elsewhere, though residents will miss out on a golden opportunity.

Petersen says he’d be fine with that.

“We are not against the aquarium. If they go ahead and expand on Island Estates, that would be fantastic,” he said.

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