New grants designed to increase foot traffic, economic vitality

Imagine downtown Clearwater with bustling pedestrian traffic and storefront windows revealing fashion or art and diners at tables. Such visions have motivated the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) into conceiving an ambitious greenscape project to renovate the waterfront and find ways to keep visitors downtown, including grants to assist local businesses and property owners.

Called Imagine Clearwater, the project gained traction on April 15, when City Council members approved a contract with Skanska Inc. of Tampa for $12.94 million. The new park along the waterfront and Coachman Park, home to the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and several other annual events, is scheduled to open in 2023.

“We began to wonder, 'What about the empty storefronts downtown?','' says CRA Director Amanda Thompson. 

A few years ago, the CRA provided grants to lure food and drink entrepreneurs. Popular locales like Tequila’s and Roxy’s opened with assistance from the CRA grants. The Downtown Merchants Association has worked with the CRA to come up with ways to attract tourists, families, and couples on a date night. Live music events and extending the closure of Cleveland Street to allow for more outdoor dining have added more life to the once-moribund district.

The food and drink grants were available short-term, Thompson says, but the new grants will be available beginning May 1 on an ongoing basis. One of them, the Whitebox Grant Program, was created to attract a wider umbrella of new tenants. 

“In addition to bars and restaurants, that might include a hair salon or stand-up comedy venue,” Thompson explains. 

The amount of grant funds available for the program will be established by the CRA Trustees on an annual basis. Their objective is to "reduce blight and vacancy throughout the CRA district.'' All grant awards are subject to budget availability. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. The application form is available at this link.

Here are descriptions of the programs provided by the city:

The Commercial Beautification Grant Program was implemented to improve the visual appearance of commercial properties through small-scale exterior building and site improvements. Grants may be awarded to property owners or tenants for exterior improvements to commercial property within the CRA district. This program, intended for exterior renovations and repairs that do not exceed a total project cost of $25,000, will fund 100 percent of the cost of eligible improvements up to $5,000 and provide a 50 percent match toward the total project cost up to a maximum of $12,500 per application. Eligible improvements include painting, signage, lighting, doors, windows, roof, site improvements, and other minor exterior repairs. 

The Whitebox Grant Program was created to reduce vacancy in commercial properties by assisting property owners and tenants with funding to renovate vacant spaces for occupancy by long-term or short-term uses that generate significant pedestrian foot traffic in downtown. Grants may be awarded to property owners or tenants for exterior and interior improvements to commercial property within the CRA district. This program is intended for renovations and repairs that do not exceed a total project cost of $100,000. Eligible improvements include exterior improvements for painting, signage, lighting, doors, windows, site improvements, and other minor exterior repairs. Eligible interior improvements include windows, doors, standard lighting and electrical, basic HVAC, concrete floor, ADA restrooms, fountain, and fire code improvements. The CRA will fund 100 percent of the cost of eligible improvements up to $25,000 and provide a 50 percent match towards the total project cost up to a maximum of $50,000 per application. 

The Vacancy Reduction Grant Program comes with the hope to reduce vacancy in ground-floor, commercial spaces by assisting property owners with funding to renovate vacant spaces for occupancy by uses that generate significant pedestrian foot traffic in downtown. Grants may be awarded to property owners for exterior and interior improvements to commercial property within the CRA district. The CRA will fund provide a 50 percent match towards the total project cost for building improvements that stay with the building up to a maximum of $500,000 for Part A. Additional funding up to $500,000 will be available for catalytic uses that serve as a destination in downtown for Part B.

Why vacancies occur isn't easy to determine, Thompson points out, but the grant programs are designed to address issues like investors not knowing about the availability of storefronts in downtown Clearwater, and the fact that the land value is worth more than buildings, so owners hold out for land assembly and demolition (an unintended consequence of higher density zoning). 

Thompson also points out that some lenders are not willing to finance projects because costs of rehabilitation can exceed the revenue a tenant will be able to generate; owners want a higher lease/sale amount than the market will support; an inability to attract tenants/buyers with financial resources; owners can afford to wait and/or are highly risk-averse, and most vacant buildings need significant renovation or buildout at $500,000 or more.

By providing the grants, the CRA hopes to increase the number of commercial properties that can attract and accommodate tenants in the CRA District as well as increase commercial occupancy rates and property values.

Outside-the-box objectives include inside-space ideas such as ways to increase the number of commercial spaces suitable for “pop-up” uses to create new retail and cultural destinations in the downtown core. 

Thompson adds: “When people come to visit the new park, we want to make sure we have shops, restaurants, and services that will entice them to stick around for a while.”
  
To find out more about the grants, visit the City of Clearwater’s Community Redevelopment Agency website.
 

Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie was written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.
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