What was expected to be a one-time grant to subsidize Blast Friday has come before the city council for a third time, drawing strong opposition from Mayor George Cretekos during a Monday work session.
With an estimated annual budget of $183,000, the monthly downtown street party has received $75,000 of that in grant money from the city the past two years, while the Downtown Development Board has kicked in $50,000. The remaining funding has come from various sponsorships including Ruth Eckerd Hall, which signed an agreement to manage and produce the outdoor events.
However, according to a city report, the development board is under financial constraints and isn’t in a position to fully fund its annual subsidy for the upcoming year. The DDB proposes to slash its contribution in half, to $25,000.
The objective of Blast Friday, as defined by the funding agreement with the nonprofit Clearwater Downtown Events, Inc., is to support efforts to increase dining and retail business while encouraging investors to the Cleveland Street District. About three years ago, the DDB partnered with the nonprofit group, formed in 2010 by William Sturtevant, to oversee the Blasts, held monthly from October through June.
Cretekos wants to end the city’s contribution.
“I don’t think what we’ve done has helped create new businesses in downtown,” he said. “It hasn’t created any new restaurants. … No sooner than one opens, one closes.”
He also pointed out that if the DDB can’t accomplish its objectives, it shouldn’t turn to the city council “to help bail it out.”
While acknowledging some gains in the overall effort, “It hasn’t, in my opinion, created the format to build the Cleveland Street District or to encourage others to make an investment,” he said. “What we have set out to accomplish hasn’t been accomplished.”
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson agreed. “That’s a fact. The few restaurants, as you pointed out, have not lasted, only with a rare exception.”
But Councilman Jay Polglaze disagreed. “Without Blast Friday, we would not have exposed our downtown, which is struggling. The primary objective was to get exposure and bring people to downtown.”
The mayor replied, “I can make that same argument for a lot of different events.”
Cretekos also said that the DDB’s reduction in funding for Blast Friday is an indication the board “does not have enough money to operate its programs, and the city of Clearwater doesn’t have enough money to operate its (own) programs. We’re going to be using reserves to balance our budget” in fiscal year 2013/14.
Rod Irwin, assistant city manager for economic development, encouraged the council to keep the current level of support for at least another year or until the Capitol Theatre re-opens. The Cleveland Street landmark, now undergoing considerable renovations, is expected to help draw more traffic downtown.
Irwin said diversifying the base of people coming to events in that area is essential.
“We need to have successful Blast Fridays and multiple kinds of entertainment that draws different groups and exposes downtown,” he said.
The mayor and other council members also are advocating that only nine monthly events be held instead of 10.
The street party has brought numerous entertainers and attractions to downtown, including Pure Prairie League, the Robin Zander Band, Firefall, the Little River Band and the annual holiday festival Miracle on Cleveland Street.
After Monday’s work session, the city council was to resume discussion and then vote Wednesday evening on whether to approve the agreement to assist in funding the event. Results were not available by the Clearwater Gazette’s publishing deadline.