CLEARWATER – In the past five years, 15 new developments have sprung up along US 19 – just not the type city leaders were really hoping for.
When the city revamped development standards for the 7-mile stretch of US 19 in 2017, it was trying to lure corporate headquarters or tech hubs with well-paying jobs and mixed-use projects where people could live, work and socialize.
Instead, they got five self-contained apartment complexes, a hotel, two self-storage warehouses, and a few gas stations, restaurants, and retail stores.
Mayor Frank Hibbard is so concerned about this trajectory that he has asked City Manager Jon Jennings to consider a construction moratorium for US 19 until the city can determine how to direct more desirable development.
During a work session on Monday, the other elected officials of the city, as well as the staff, showed no desire to pursue any moratorium. But they brainstormed a series of strategies, such as incentives and marketing, that they hope can help the United States better compete with economic hubs like the Westshore City Center in Tampa or the State Road 54 corridor in Trinity.
“I strongly believe that the US 19 corridor is really next,” said Denise Sanderson, the city’s director of economic development and housing. “A big part of the engagement we have with our site selectors, developers and brokers is that they recognize that they need to find new markets.”
The corridor faced challenges that made it difficult to compete, city staff said. City officials began planning for the redevelopment of US 19 in 2008, around the time the state began conducting a major reconstruction of the overpasses and frontage lanes. Several local and state studies are there to improve mobility, but US 19 remains quite hostile to pedestrians and cyclists.
US 19 was widely viewed by investors as a strip mall with only 25% of commercial land used for office and 5% for industrial, according to a report prepared by the city’s planning department.
And a built corridor like US 19 may struggle to compete with areas in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, which have more vacant land that doesn’t come with the same complications of demolition or contamination.
“The transformation of this 7-mile corridor is something that won’t happen overnight,” said planning and development director Gina Clayton. “I think we have to remember that the redevelopment cycle usually starts with new housing being added to an area and obviously that happens here, and once people live here you will usually find services and retail businesses afterwards, then finally jobs.”
Sanderson said the city should support placing a referendum question in the November ballot on renewing a tax holiday program for another 10 years to provide up to 100% lower property taxes for certain eligible job creators. The city’s current program, passed by voters in 2012, offers a 75% discount and has been applied to two businesses in the past decade, Sanderson said.
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Sanderson said another option is for the city to create a tax-raise funding district to encompass US 19, which would take a portion of property taxes to reinvest in the area.
Clayton’s report also suggested creating a dedicated funding stream to provide incentives to desired companies and industries. Sanderson said the city should also encourage Pinellas County to start a program that would allow cities to ask Penny for the 1-cent sales tax revenue from Pinellas to pay for land assembly or site preparation to economic development purposes.
“The biggest challenge in attracting development is certainty and predictability in the marketplace, and I think conversations like this are a bit scary,” Sanderson said of the moratorium discussion. “So I think we need to be fully engaged and certainly establish programs and incentives that people can access when they follow certain rules.”
Hibbard said that although he received angry phone calls from developers who heard whispers about the moratorium, the discussion was needed. He recalled the early 2000s when relentless condominium construction on Clearwater Beach threatened the tourism market. He said the city discussed a moratorium at the time, but instead developed policies that incentivized hotels, which helped make the beach the international destination it is today.
“We wouldn’t have had this conversation if I hadn’t lifted a moratorium, so I think it was productive and I’m not scared of it at all,” Hibbard said during Monday’s working session. .
Jennings, the city manager, said he expects his office to consider Monday’s discussion to formulate an action plan for next steps.
“It was a necessary conversation,” Jennings said.