CLEARWATER — Many merchants and business leaders here think their downtown finally is on the verge of a boom.
Next month a renovated Capitol Theatre will open its doors on Cleveland Street, accommodating up to 750 people a night. Jay Leno is scheduled to be there in February — his first appearance after retiring from television.
A building across the street from the theater is set to be renovated and converted into 51 condo units called the SkyView, the first downtown condominium since the recession.
A new bar and grill, an Italian restaurant and a gelato shop are among a wave of retailers opening soon in vacant storefronts, some of which have sat unoccupied for years.
In many other empty windows there are posters urging residents to vote in favor of what promised to be the biggest boost to the Tampa Bay area’s third-largest city: the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
A majority of residents caught the vision for this massive attraction to be built on a bluff overlooking the city’s waterfront where an aging city hall now stands. In a referendum last week, 55 percent of Clearwater voters said “yes” to leasing the property to the aquarium.
While there are years of fundraising ahead for the aquarium before the deal is finalized and ground is broken, Cleveland Street business owner Tony Starova said he believes an influx of retail and foot traffic will arrive in a matter of months.
“This is a turning point,” said Starova, who opened Tony’s Pizzeria eight years ago and has stayed afloat even as neighboring merchants went under.
“You’ll see an avalanche. In the next six months, you’re going to see at least three or four new businesses coming in — and not just mom and pops like me.”
Starova, who serves on the city’s downtown development board, opened the Capitol Beer House last year in the space next door to his popular pizza joint, anticipating strong business from the renovated theater across the street.
He says well-known restaurant brands are showing increased interest in downtown and he expects a hotel in coming years to accommodate the droves of tourists projected at the new aquarium, drawn by the international fame of its biggest star, Winter the dolphin.
In the meantime, there are smaller signs of life on downtown’s streets.
Around the lunch hour Thursday, a crowd on the streets was made up of professionals in suits, tourists in T-shirts and members of the Church of Scientology donning uniform slacks and white dress shirts.
They sat outdoors at a scattering of al fresco restaurants and cafes, and many stopped at a series of parking spaces transformed for the day into an impromptu art studio or a lounge where pedestrians could pick up books from the city library and relax on benches.
It was the city’s latest effort to bring a spark of whimsy and creative activity to a city center that has all the makings of a vibrant downtown — the tree-lined sidewalks and medians, the mix of offices, shops and restaurants — but appears empty and lifeless at times during the day.
Several city departments and organizations such as the aquarium took part in Clearwater’s first Park(ing) day, inspired by other events across the nation where communities look to create life in otherwise bland urban spaces like parking lots.
“It’s to start the discussion: ‘What can this place be?’” said Lauren Matzke, a city planner who organized the event.
The Clearwater Downtown Partnership, city officials and others have worked for years to generate more buzz, especially along Cleveland Street, through music festivities such as the monthly Blast Friday, which draws thousands of people.
The partnership’s chair, Bill Sturtevant, said he asked former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker some years ago what had caused his downtown to become such a lively destination.
“They created their economic development through events,” Sturtevant said.
Of course, concerts and farmers markets alone can’t sustain retailers on a daily basis. City leaders also have recruited a group of small tech companies to move into office space in downtown bank buildings such as the Bank of America and Sunrust buildings, offering incentives to make for an affordable transition.
A pair of high-end condominiums, Water’s Edge and Station Square, also has brought a critical mass of full-time urban residents and a 247-unit, mixed-use apartment complex is planned on the outskirts of downtown.
What some community leaders say has been missing, though, is something grand that would identify downtown Clearwater and set it apart from the world-famous beach just across Memorial Causeway.
The city’s most notable architectural feature now is the Church of Scientology’s imposing Flag Building, adjacent to the church-owned Fort Harrison Hotel in the heart of downtown.
A 200,000 square-foot aquarium about a block to the west of the church complex on the City Hall property would help brand downtown as a tourist mecca centered on the film “Dolphin Tale” and draw people downtown 365 days a year, aquarium leaders have said.
“The aquarium will bring a hotel. The aquarium will bring possibly a convention center, possibly,” said Sturtevant.
There’s a long road ahead for the aquarium, which has shifted gears from campaigning to fundraising with the passage of the referendum.
Aquarium board member and former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said talks already have started with city staffers about finalizing terms of the lease, which aren’t expected to change from language drafted before the election.
By the end of the year, a feasibility study should be complete that aquarium leaders expect will bolster their case to donors and city officials that the new attraction could bring nearly 1 million or even more people annually to downtown Clearwater.
Hibbard said they’re aiming to conclude fundraising by the end of the 2015 state legislative session, well ahead of the agreed-upon deadline with the city of Aug. 1, 2016. They also will be looking for ways to trim the project’s costs before then, from their conservative estimate of $160 million down into the neighborhood of $90 million, he said.
While Hibbard expects the aquarium to bring new businesses downtown, he suspects some investors will hold off until the project is closer to being finalized.
“I’d love to say people will invest on the belief it will get done, but I have a feeling some people may sit back and watch and wait,” he said.
Downtown Development Board chair David Allbritton says as soon as projects like the aquarium and the theater take off, there will be a “waiting list” of businesses looking to jump in on the action.
The transformation that appears ready to happen downtown in the next few years, though, is the result of more than a decade of planning and investment by city and community leaders, including some $70 million in public spending on infrastructure improvements and big projects like the Capitol Theatre and the library.
“Whenever a town is successful, they say it’s an overnight success, but things have been coming together here for a long time,” Allbritton said.