A city on the verge: Young professionals key to Clearwater's future

Grant Wood’s introduction to the Clearwater community came eight years ago. “Right at the [economic] crash,” he says.

He was in his early 30s at the time, and as part of the residential development team that brought the Water’s Edge condos to the bluffs adjacent to downtown, his company had a vested interest in the health of the city’s urban core. But more than that, Wood was impressed by those working to rejuvenate downtown Clearwater; they dreamed of attracting more residential and retail projects, which would lead to more feet on the streets.

“I met some really great people,” he says. “A lot of really great people, very passionate people interested in seeing their downtown revitalized.”

There weren’t many young professionals helping to shape the city at the time, and Wood, now chair of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, jumped in with both feet. Even then, he saw the city’s potential. 

“At the end of the day, when you look at downtown Clearwater, though there are challenges, there are tremendous bones to it that cannot be replicated,” he says. These “bones’’ include the bluffs, the waterfront, and access to the beaches. “It’s a gem waiting to materialize … it’s a city on the verge of a major transformation in identity.”

On the cusp of change

Dev Pathik, Owner of Sports Facilities Advisory, which has seen its specialized employee base grow from 30 to about 400 during the past five years, agrees that now, more than ever, the city is on the cusp of change. “I don’t think there is any place in Pinellas County more ready and closer to a renaissance and significant change than downtown Clearwater,” he says.

Recent conversations swirl around Imagine Clearwater, the proposed redesign of the city’s waterfront, and other significant projects, such as The Nolen, a 257-unit apartment tower set to open on the eastern end of Cleveland Street.

Projects like these signify the city’s long-awaited resurrection could be on its way. But community and business leaders agree the key to downtown’s long-term success relies heavily on its ability to appeal to young professionals.

Pathik’s company and its affiliates target ambitious, young workers, often former athletes. He expects his number of employees to more than double to nearly 1,000 within the next two years. “As we expand and grow, more of our employees will likely live in Clearwater,” he says, rather than nearby cities Tampa and St. Petersburg, as more top-of-the-line residential projects come to downtown. In addition to The Nolen, a Chicago developer recently purchased the 15-story Strand high-rise tower that likely will include commercial and residential space.

Pathik recruits many of his employees from out of the area. Last year, nine of his employees purchased homes when they relocated to Pinellas County. “That’s a lot of home buying for our little headquarters,” he says.

Residential options lead to another of the factors young professionals consider when moving to an area: nightlife. When there are more people on the street, “retail and restaurants start to see an area as a viable investment,” Wood says.

Events and programming are also key to drawing a younger base downtown. The newly renovated city-owned Capitol Theatre on Cleveland Street “is doing a phenomenal job with programming and is making it a true destination,” Wood says.

Down the road, Imagine Clearwater’s waterfront park will include three unique spaces for programming, including The Green, a great open lawn space for large-scale events, and The Garden, which includes a revamped Coachman Park for smaller gatherings.

“If it’s programmed properly, I think we’ll have a very active downtown,” Wood says. “Younger professionals and millennials will want to get engaged.”

Then there’s the transformation of Cleveland Street’s Station Square Park. The city will upgrade the public space with the addition of 100 bistro-style tables and chairs. Audra Aja, Clearwater’s economic development Coordinator, says this will “create a sense of community.” Not only can downtown workers and residents utilize the park, the city will also bring in various programming and encourage groups to meet there.

Alex Chamberlain, Chair of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and Founder of its Clearwater Young Professionals group, says there is no better place in the region for a career-driven young professional. No matter what industry they’re in -- from tech to real estate -- Clearwater has it, he says.

He understands the allure of cities such as Tampa and St. Petersburg. “Even I get the itch every once in a while to move,” he says. “But you have more opportunities here. You have the chance to really grow something yourself. In Tampa, you’re just another fish in the sea.”

Because Clearwater is in the midst of change, it’s easier to get involved and form personal relationships with city and business leaders. “As far as professional growth, you can’t beat what you have in Clearwater,” Chamberlain says. “If a young professional looks at Clearwater first, they find they can grow pretty quickly here and build something amazing.”

He commends the city for fostering an environment that develops young workers and entrepreneurs. He nods to the recently formed Clearwater Business Spark, which brings together a variety of resources for entrepreneurs and small business owners. This network includes the chamber and the city’s Economic Development and Housing Department.

Aja, who oversees Spark, says it assists entrepreneurs of all ages, but most often they are approached by younger individuals looking to build a career. “Sometimes they’re just out of college and have an idea,” she says. “Some have been working for a few years and want to start their own business and take the next step.”

The Spark partners offer a variety of resources from mentorship and networking opportunities to access to state-of-the art technology, such as the green screen and studio-grade camera equipment offered by Clearwater’s library system. “Young professionals are very into those kind of tools,” Aja says.

She says the city recognizes that its prospects relies on the growth of these up-and-coming business owners. “They absolutely play a very important role and are an important part of our future,” she says. “They have a lot to add to the local community and will create jobs down the line. Not only downtown, but in the greater Clearwater area.”
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Read more articles by Tiffany Razzano.

Tiffany Razano is a Pinellas County-based writer and editor covering the City of Clearwater and other news and features in the Tampa Bay region for 83 Degrees.