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Coachman Park Committee Cool With Aquarium Plan for Harborview Center

Some criticism has surfaced about impacts on traffic at Island Estates and downtown development because of the aquarium's plan to use the Harborview Center as an attraction annex.

A group looking to expand and enhance Coachman Park is fine with a city plan to rent the Harborview Center to the despite complaints.

Some criticism surfaced about impacts on traffic at Island Estates and downtown development because of the aquarium's plan to use the Harborview Center as an attraction annex.

The Coachman Park Enhancement Committee, formed in February, is working on a feasibility study, to be ready in February 2012, that examines park elements, structures, programming, management and funding.

The group plans to get public comment and feedback on concepts during the study period, said Howard Warshauer, a member of the committee.

Warshauer is fine with the plan that could see the aquarium moving into the former retail space for up to 30 months.

“This is a long-term process that will probably take three to five years,” Warshauer said in an email. “So the interim use of the Harborview fits in well with our plans.”

Frank Dame, the vice president for the aquarium, said they would like to get in by Nov. 1. They need a certificate of occupancy then they can start building exhibits, he said.

Under the agreement, the city would pay $172,587 to repair issues with the aging structure to make it habitable. Officials estimate the cost to run the building is about $60,000 a year.

The aquarium would then pay the city back through a portion of the attendance fees.

The aquarium would pay a minimum $5,753 in monthly rent to the city. To meet rent, the aquarium will use $1 from every ticket sale. Once the money is recouped, the rent would be adjusted to $1 month.

Parking for aquarium attendees would be free in the north and west Harborview Center lots.

With trailers for the movie featuring Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Morgan Freeman playing in theaters already, the aquarium has seen a boost in attendance. Thousands more visitors are expected after the release of the movie Sept. 23.

But others who live near the aquarium on Island Estates, are not buying the idea that aquarium officials are trying to reduce traffic to the attraction.

Jack Mortimer said 1,213 people bought into a July 29 Groupon deal that advertised half-price memberships for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

“If they are truly so concerned about being overwhelmed by traffic over the next 12 months, why are they selling more than 1,000 season passes for half price,” Mortimer wrote in a complaint to the city.

Others doubt the claims of downtown rejuvenation. The overflow facility is expected to bring in about 181,000 people each year.

John Giotis, the headmaster at the School of the Immaculata, which is in St. Petersburg, called the aquarium’s claims for downtown visitors “optimistic assumptions” in an email sent to council members Aug. 17.

“I love Clearwater and I want to see the downtown area prosper just as much as anyone else does," Giotis wrote. "However I don’t think the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s proposal is the answer."

Council member George Cretekos compared the story of Winter to another Hollywood animal star, Lassie, a collie dog character made famous in MGM's 1943 film "Lassie Come Home." He also said the plan gives leaders time to come up with a plan for the redevelopment of Coachman Park.

“Ten years from now, Coachman Park cannot be another conversation item like the roundabout’s fountain still is,” Cretekos wrote.

“While I realize that some still will question this proposed agreement, I hope those residents will also realize what a tremendous opportunity the movie ‘Dolphin Tale' is,” Cretekos wrote in an email reply to complaints. “Clearwater has already received publicity all over the world. Early indications are that the movie should be a box office success.”

Coachman Park was the old homestead of E.H. Coachman and Mary Mease until the site was sold to the city for the construction of the Carnegie Library in 1916 with the other part designated as a public park. A portion of the land was sold in the late 1950s to build the Maas Brothers department store. Which later became the Harborview Center.

Garris questioned the plan’s effect on downtown, too.

“I am appalled that one of the reasons given for renting the falling down building which you just paid $600,000 to finally vacate, is that ‘people might get used to seeing green space that and want to keep it,’” Garris wrote. “Anyone who has listend to this rhetoric at city hall about all the reasons for getting rid of the Harborview Center has got to be shaking their heads at this.”

I had a call the other day from a woman who lives out of state. She knew about the aquarium wanted to know where in Tampa Bay the aquarium was. I had to explain that Tampa Bay is a regional name for the area which surrounds the bay. Tampa is on one side while Clearwater is on the other. Because of Winter and the aquarium more people all over the world now know that Clearwater exists. After the movie is released more will know where we are. Once they discover our area they come back and visit again and again. Even those who know about Clearwater may not know how much downtown has changed. I was surprised with how great it is when I started going to an office there over a year ago. It has improved even more since then. We need more people to see downtowm and start visiting the businesses there. Having the aquarium bring more people to downtown can only help - particularly when they have a pleasant experience there. Tax payer dollars must be spent wisely. I can not comment on the arrangement made between the city and the aquarium but anything that brings more people downtown for a great experience should be beneficial for all taxpayers.

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