Task Force Eyes Downtown Convention Center
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER – As the clock ticks down on the final year of operation for the Harborview Center, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce has begun to stir up interest in constructing a new convention center in downtown Clearwater. They have formed the Clearwater Convention Center Task Force to determine the feasibility of such a facility and to conduct the lobbying effort necessary to make it a reality.
According to a Task Force document, there has been a need for a “true convention center” in Pinellas County for years. In addition, local businesses, civic organizations and the tourism industry are concerned that closing the Harborview Center, currently scheduled for January 2010, will leave them with no mid-County venue to hold their events.
That same document cited comments made by Barry Strafacci, General Manager of the Harborview Center for Global Spectrum, calling the existing facility more of a civic center than convention center, and claiming that the site is not appropriate for a new convention center because of limited parking. The high cost of nearby land was also cited as a deterrent to the construction of an adjacent hotel that would be needed for a convention center to succeed.
The task force is eying the east end of downtown for the proposed new facility because relatively inexpensive land is available, and because the facility would serve as an additional catalyst to the redevelopment of downtown Clearwater.
Convention Centers, especially in their early years, have needed public support to operate. Clearwater's own Harborview Center is a clear example, requiring an annual city subsidy of about $300-thousand in recent years.
Although that red ink is the primary reason the Council decided last year to close the facility, the city is partially funding a feasibility study that will evaluate market demand and the downtown location of the proposed new convention center. Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne has contributed $10,000 of the $50,000 required for the study from his discretionary fund. The task force is starting a fundraising effort for the remaining $40,000 this week.
If the outcome of the first study is promising, a second one will be required to estimate the facility's economic impact and cost, and to recommend its configuration and business model. Funding for the second study has not yet been identified, but the city was named as a possible source.
The city may also be asked to keep the Harborview Center open beyond the January, 2010, closing date established by the City Council last year. Task force members believe that continuity of operation between the old and new centers will retain Harborview's current client base and save the new convention center $500-thousand in its first year.
Keeping Harborview open would cost the city's taxpayers dearly. A report prepared by city Finance Director Margie Simmons and Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin estimated a cost of more that $3-million to extend Harborview for five more years, including $900-thousand for roof and air conditioning replacement.
While Irwin has reportedly told the task force that “there are two council people who might be persuaded to keep Harborview open”, Mayor Frank Hibbard and Councilmember Paul Gibson are not expected to be a very receptive audience.
During a Harborview discussion during the July 14, 2008, Council work session, Hibbard said, “We're just going to keep on extending this thing and we're never going to kill it. It [Harborview] needs to be killed.”
Gibson, long a critic of Harborview subsidies, expressed no support for continuing them; “We're going to need that money to subsidize the losses on the downtown boat slips,” he said this week.
Martin Smith, Chairman of the Clearwater Convention Center Task Force, said that the initial feasibility study, to be conducted by Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners, should be completed by May or June of this year. He is hopeful that the results will indicate that Clearwater is capable of sustaining a world-class convention center.
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