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Clearwater property owners are 'mentally moving on' from downtown

Despite a scenic location overlooking the water and millions spent on a new amphitheater and park, downtown Clearwater can be pretty empty most days. We talk with two former property owners there to find out why.

Downtowns throughout Florida have been thriving in recent years. Just look at Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and even smaller cities like Lakeland and New Port Richey. But one holdout is Clearwater.

I met two business owners in front of a building called One Clearwater Tower. It's on Cleveland Street, which used to be the main street here. That was before 2005, when a new bridge to Clearwater Beach shifted traffic south, leaving what was once the heart of a thriving downtown high and dry.

Daniels Ikajevs and Festus Porbeni recently sold the 11-story tower, one of the tallest in downtown Clearwater. Ikajevs says there are several reasons why. 

“One is government instability,” he said, pointing out they worked with five different directors of downtown redevelopment agency in the past two years.

“And I think the tipping point was for both of us here was former Mayor Frank Hibbard quit,” Ikajevs said, “and I think that was the last call for us, where we got together and decided to sell our properties.”

Two men standing outside
Steve Newborn
Festus Porbeni, left, and Daniels Ikajevs, walk along Cleveland Street.

The mayor quit last year, in the middle of a city council meeting after butting heads with council members over what he called excessive spending. Hibbard said he became frustrated with the council going ahead with a new City Hall complex, at a cost of more than $90 million. He said his vision for fiscal sobriety was "futile."

Ikajevs said it goes deeper than that. He bemoaned a "lack of urgency" from the city to work with business owners. He and his partners ran into that when they tried to open a brew hall in downtown Clearwater.

" At some point, you just say this is dysfunctional. So we just stopped.” - Daniels Ikajevs

 “But when you start the process, then you stop because there is a change of staff, then you re-submit the new application,” he said, “then again, you stop three times. At some point, you just say this is dysfunctional. So we just stopped.”

“Their timelines are different,” Ikajevs said of city officials. “We want to see things now, versus four or five years down the road. A sense of urgency, that sort of urgency doesn't exist. I would argue that four or five years down the road, when the bluffs projects (a scaled-down apartment complex proposal) do come out, many of these businesses will no longer be here. What kept government from RFP'ing (request for proposal) the bluff properties 10 years ago?”

But there is still some life here. Bandsaws buzz away at a renovation being done to an historic building just across Garden Street from their former building.

The city spent millions to spruce up Cleveland Street, with decorative sidewalks, lamps and even closed off a portion next to the historic Capitol Theatre to cars. Restaurants there are allowed to serve patrons at tables on the street. But as we walk by on this Friday afternoon, there’s no one there.

Empty streets
Steve Newborn
Few people gather for a Friday lunch outdoors on Cleveland Street.

When I asked Porbeni why no one was at a popular restaurant, he also blamed the city administration.

"...it looks pretty empty. It looks like literally like a ghost town.” - Festus Porbeni

“Yes, it seems like a very easy sell. But the problem we have right now is that the people on the ‘top floor’ are not actually discussing well with the property owners,” he said. “If you don't, if you are not in good conversation with them to create more grants and incentives to help them out, then it's not going to survive. And that's what you see right now. As you said, it looks pretty empty. It looks like literally like a ghost town.”

Bruce Rector wants to change that mindset. He was just elected as the new mayor, along with two new city council members who ran on a pro-business platform.

Bruce Rector
City of Clearwater
Bruce Rector

“You can't walk or drive through downtown Clearwater and not see our struggles,” he said. “We've not kept up with the kind of revitalization obviously that St. Petersburg and Tampa have had.”

Most of the people I saw walking downtown wore the uniform of the Church of Scientology. Their spiritual world headquarters is two blocks away down Fort Harrison Avenue.

Most of the vacancies here are in buildings owned by the church or its parishioners. The Tampa Bay Times reported that one of those parishioners, Moises Agami, has 24 storefronts and 15 of them are empty.

“We've not presented ourselves very well and Scientology has a large presence in downtown Clearwater,” the mayor said. “Everyone knows that - that's not breaking news either. But we've kind of let that narrative dominate the storyline.”

Rector and the newly-changed city council held a retreat last week to air out plans to give downtown a kick start – whether the Church of Scientology works with them or not.

The church has expressed interest in the past to swap land with the city so they can expand their spiritual headquarters. But Rector said he's not sure that trading properties would be in the city's best interest.

"...if there's some deal to be had that, that really benefits the citizens of Clearwater, then we would be interested in talking with them about that.” - Clearwater Mayor Bruce Rector on dealing with Scientology property owners

“Certainly we'd love to see them, and all property owners who are not doing anything with their property to help us revitalize the entire community,” the mayor said. “But I think we just need to improve our communications with them and, and then if there's some deal to be had that, that really benefits the citizens of Clearwater, then we would be interested in talking with them about that.”

“(Our citizens) They understand that Scientology has been here for 35 years and it's not going to go anywhere,” he said. (The church has actually been based here since 1979). “But they would really like to see a balance downtown Clearwater. And right now, we don't have that balance yet, but we're working very hard to get there.”

Empty storefronts
Steve Newborn
Empty storefronts line Cleveland Street.

Rector says even though the city has spent more than $84 million on projects like The BayCare Sound amphitheater and the park along the waterfront, more needs to be done.

He says a new hotel and apartment complex on the bluff will help. Pinellas County is also considering consolidating its offices here in the county seat, which would free up space for other businesses.

“We've got a lot of potential, a lot of enthusiasm. My main task now as mayor is to keep that enthusiasm going and to keep that optimism and confidence alive,” Rector said. “And so we're working very hard to do that, but it's, it's a matter of controlling what you can control.”

"“We have mentally moved on.”
Daniels Ikajevs

But for investors like Ikajevs, it’s too little, too late.

“Well, I hope that there, there is a hope at the end of the tunnel. We wish the city and the new property owners best of luck,” he said. “We hope that they could figure out this 20 year-old puzzle and, and they could revitalize this area.

“We have mentally moved on.”

Whether the city can "move on" and transform its image remains a big question mark.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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