Tourism sparkles in 2013, while new projects promise continued growth

CLEARWATER — It's been a year of “bests” for Mayor George Cretekos, whose city garnered the titles of “Best Florida Beach Town,” “Best Place to Watch a Sunset” and, just last week, “Best Florida Attraction” for Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Those three designations were the result of polls conducted by USA Today Travel Media Group and 10Best.
Said the mayor, “2013 has been a banner year for sparkling Clearwater. It gives us tools to help market Clearwater as a premier tourism destination. With these honors, Clearwater will be the destination to visit in 2014. Each month, we continue to exceed my expectations.”
And the “best” of Clearwater is backed by 2013 “bed tax” collections. Pinellas topped $31 million — the highest in the county's history and an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, according to the tax collector's office. Clearwater accounted for more than 35 percent of those proceeds.
The bed tax is a 5 percent surcharge added to the bill of every accommodation rented for less than six months. It funds tourism marketing, beach restoration and other projects.
Along with city and county marketing strategies, the 2012 Republican National Convention, with its delegates and media coverage, contributed to the bump in local tourism this past year, Cretekos is convinced. While the city wasn't the nucleus of convention events and festivities, 11 visiting state delegations were booked at six Clearwater Beach and Sand Key hotels.
The mayor, who met with each delegation, said the city's reputation as a premier destination was cemented by “our hoteliers, their staff, the city police and our citizens. They did an awesome job. It was truly a team effort.”
While tourism is a bright star and the city's current financial status is good, Cretekos cautioned that the full effects of the national Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 on homeowners, property values and the tax base is still unknown.
The city has maintained a millage of 5.155 for the fifth straight year; however, “we don't know how the new law is going to affect the city's tax base,” he said.
A mill is a $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property value. The owner of a $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $515.50 in city property tax.
To balance the current budget, city officials shifted $1.4 million from its reserves, leaving nearly $18 million in its rainy day fund.
Here are other noteworthy events of 2013 and a look ahead to the new year.
• Acknowledging that the Cleveland Street District “has been difficult” for businesses, Cretekos said the the opening of the Capitol Theatre in December may be the catalyst that area needs. “The Capitol Theatre is now a go-to destination,” something that downtown has been lacking. He said the city's $10.5 million investment in the theater is meant to encourage the private sector to help revitalize the Cleveland Street District.
• Cretekos is confident that plans for a new home for Clearwater Marine Aquarium will boost downtown. Winter the movie star dolphin and her cohorts at the aging marine animal hospital on Island Estates won over a majority of voters in a November referendum on leasing the city hall property as the site of aquarium. Instead of the talked about $160 million project, officials are now projecting a construction cost of about $100 million. Aquarium leaders must raise all necessary funds by Aug. 1, 2016 or the lease deal is off.
Moreover, the mayor hopes the theater and the proposed aquarium will give owners of downtown properties the incentive to improve their buildings so the area is more attractive to new businesses.
• After 15 years of on and off construction, the very prominent Flag Building of the Church of Scientology is open and will continue to draw traffic to downtown, he said. The November dedication ceremony drew thousands of out-of-town guests.
• Cretekos anticipates a June completion of the city's new fire department headquarters at 1140 Court St. The cost is estimated at $11.5 million, which includes architectural fees, the purchase price of the property and construction. When completed, the facility will replace the 40-year-old Franklin Street station.
• The city launched a “technology-smart” district last year to assist companies that generate significant job growth in the information technology and software fields.  That prompted BayCare Health System to open a new central campus at 2985 Drew St. The location will house 400-plus staff members and support training for BayCare's 22,900 team members.
• General Electric Co. chose Clearwater as the place to expand its manufacturing operations. That will result in 263 new jobs and a $49 million expansion to the company's current site. Instrument Transformers, a subsidiary of General Electric, has been in Clearwater for nearly 40 years and currently has 436 employees.
• With the help of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL, the city and Clearwater for Youth opened a new field in North Greenwood for the Clearwater Panthers youth football team. The field also will be available for events like the spring break lacrosse tournament.
• The city broke ground for a $34 million plant that will treat up to 6.25 million gallons of brackish water per day, an amount expected to supply nearly all of the water that residents and businesses consume. A $15 million grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District will help offset the cost of construction. The plant is expected to open in December 2014.
• The $3 million overhaul of Sid Lickton Field is nearing completion, and it's expected to reopen on Feb. 15. “It will be a first class Little League facility,” said Cretekos. The complex on Saturn Avenue has been home to the Clearwater Little League program for more than 50 years. The renovated complex will feature five new baseball fields, a new practice field, and a two-story building for concessions, restrooms and a press box.
• Cretekos said the city and the Pinellas County Sports Commission are bidding to bring the International Shuffleboard Association's World Singles Championship to Clearwater in 2015.  The association in October visited the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club at 1020 Calumet St.
The island resort community still “sparkles” in the eyes of investors and developers, Cretekos said.
Last year, six developers went before the city with building proposals, an unusually high level of interest as compared to previous years.
To date, the city has approved the construction of:
• A 171-room Hampton Inn & Suites next to the Quality Inn Hotel at 655 South Gulfview Blvd.
• A 85-room boutique hotel will replace the Sea Captain Motel at 40 Devon Drive.
• A 102-room hotel at 669 Bay Esplanade.
• A 202-room hotel called The Views that will replace the Wyndham Garden at 691 S. Gulfview Blvd.
• A 103-room hotel to replace the Gulf View Hotel at 625 S. Gulfview Blvd.
One pending agreement proposes a 180-room hotel to replace the Beachview Inn at 325 S. Gulfview Blvd.
In previous years, the council approved the following projects:
• A 230-room hotel by Ocean Properties at the former Adam's Mark at 311 S. Gulfview Blvd.
• A 134-room resort with 50 boat slips and a 6,500-square-foot restaurant at East Shore Drive, approved in 2012.
• A 300-room Renaissance Resort and a 150-room Residence Inn at Gulfview Boulevard and Coronado Drive, approved in 2008 and revised in 2011.
• A 100-room expansion at Shephard's Beach Resort.
However, the interest from developers also has created frustration among council members who have been approving hotel development applications but not seeing much progress on actual construction.  Only Ocean Properties and Shephard's began construction in the past year.
Beach by Design, the city's blueprint for future development on Clearwater Beach, recognizes a need to balance the needs of residents and tourists. Throughout the year, the council and hotel developers debated provisions in the plan concerning building plots; setbacks; mass, height and elevation; exterior façade; view corridors; and room density.
Those discussions led the council and city staff to conclude that Beach by Design should be tweaked again, this time to allow for greater setbacks; to prevent walling off views of the Gulf of Mexico; and perhaps to eliminate quibbling among developers trying to protect perceived entitlements to those waterfront vistas and other supposed rights like the number of hotel rooms allowed. 
The rush by developers to put their projects before the council can be attributed to concerns that if Beach by Design is altered, it will inhibit their ability to stay competitive with much of the hotel development happening on the barrier island.
Beach by Design was adopted in 2001 and amended seven times, the last in 2010.
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