CLEARWATER - On March 13th the voters of Clearwater will for the third time decide whether or not the city's downtown waterfront will be developed with boat slips.
In 2000, voters rejected an ambitious downtown redevelopment referendum that included a marina and featured 60-year leases of city-owned property to a private developer for $1 per year. The city downsized its proposal in 2004, posing charter amendment questions that allowed a marina, redevelopment of Coachman Park and a parking garage, but 58 percent of Clearwater's voters rejected that one as well.
Following the 2004 referendum loss, the city conducted a survey of its citizens, asking them what they liked and disliked about that plan. "Almost unanimously, the boat slips were the most popular portion of that referendum question," Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said during a "stakeholder" meeting on January 12th.
So in 2007, the city has come back with a third proposal, hoping that voters will approve the construction of 129 boat slips, a harbormaster's office, and a pedestrian promenade on Clearwater's downtown waterfront.
In addition to reversing the trend of the declining number of boat slips available to the public, the city touts the project as a stimulus to the revitalization of downtown. But will the wet storage of private vessels generate much economic activity there?
Perhaps, according to Bruce Littler, owner of the Olde Nautical Shoppe located at the Municipal Marina on Clearwater Beach. He thinks that nearby restaurants will benefit more than retailers. Littler attributes only a small amount of his business to boaters who store their vessels at the marina, but a significant amount to transients and the riders on the marina's many excursion boats. As proposed, the downtown slips will have no permanent docking for commercial excursion vessels, and room for fewer than 30 transient boats within the facility's protective wave attenuation system.
Some critics of the downtown slips have pointed to the long fetches of open water that the facility will be exposed to, claiming that the water may at times be too rough and questioning the effectiveness of the proposed floating concrete dock wave attenuation system that the city's consultants claim will withstand a Category II hurricane.
But the experience at the Legacy Harbor Marina in Fort Meyers with wave attenuation systems has been good. Harbormaster Dave O'Connor said, "It can be as sloppy as it can be outside the breakwater, and calm inside." The floating concrete dock wave attenuation system has been installed since 1988 according to O'Connor, and has survived every hurricane it has seen, including Wilma and Charlie.
O'Connor said that Legacy Harbor has proven to be so safe that the Fort Meyers Beach Coast Guard moves their two 40-foot vessels to the marina during hurricanes.
Clearwater's downtown boat slip initiative is facing a familiar opponent, Save the Bayfront and its president Anne Garris, who were largely responsible for the defeats in 2000 and 2004.
Money talks in Clearwater elections, and the opponents in this year's boat slip referendum seem to have experienced a financial role reversal. Save the Bayfront's colorful mailer in 2004 was funded by a $30,000 contribution by former City Commission Member Fred Thomas. This year, Save the Bayfront has reported only $2,440 in cash contributions since January 20th.
In addition to the $62,000 spent by the City of Clearwater in support of the referendum, a Political Action Committee called Citizens for a Beautiful Active Waterfront has joined the fray, with contributions totaling $20,595 since January 20th; $15,000 of that was contributed by Marine Max, a Clearwater-based retailer of boats.
Sam Lowrey, Director of Real Estate for Marine Max, explained his company's generous contribution; "We are headquartered in Clearwater and we believe in what the city is doing. It's something we would not do anywhere else; it's because we have strong ties here." Lowrey added, "We want to promote water access; the loss of marinas to condo development has made this an important issue for our industry."
Demand for the slips, even at their projected $15.50/foot/month rental rate seems strong. The City of Clearwater established a sign-up page on their web site, and thus far have collected 143 non-binding expressions of interest. About 30 of those appear to be duplicates.