Clearwater's next emerging neighborhood? North Marina district

North of downtown Clearwater on North Fort Harrison Avenue, empty storefronts and for rent signs mix in with thrift shops, furniture stores, and carpeting businesses.

In spite of the close proximity to the waterfront, the North Marina area has long struggled with a revolving door of businesses, vacant properties, and dilapidated buildings.

But city officials and private investors think a revival is brewing.

On May 4, a craft beer brewery, the Clearwater Brewing Company, will open in a newly renovated 1958 building that has been a Gulf service station, an auto detail shop, a carpeting store, and a stucco business over the years.

The four friends behind the brewery like the location in part because it was cheaper than property to the south in downtown Clearwater or north in downtown Dunedin.

But they also see an opportunity to be the catalyst that attracts more businesses to the stretch of Fort Harrison near the Old Clearwater Bay neighborhood.
 
“I think we are going to be the spark,” co-owner Keith Ford says. “I think this is the business that is going to draw people here to stay a few hours. I think more businesses will follow. There’s a great neighborhood behind here and they are very excited we are going in. They walk up here every day to see how we are doing.”

Clearwater Brewing is one of several promising signs of activity in and around the North Marina district, a 55-acre area off the water north of downtown that city officials want to invigorate through a mix of public investment and private development.

A multi-million upgrade of the Seminole Boat Ramp is intended to transform the city-owned property into a destination for cyclists, walkers, and anyone looking to enjoy the waterfront while maintaining its function as a busy boat ramp.

The city is purchasing the vacant North Ward Elementary School from Pinellas County Schools with an eye to finding a new use while preserving the historic red brick structure. 

A plan to tap potential

Clearwater officials’ current efforts to revitalize the North Marina area date to a 2014 Urban Land Institute advisory report that identified three opportunities to activate the waterfront: building on the city’s status as a boating destination, improving Coachman Park and redeveloping the North Marina district.
 
In early 2016, the city released a master plan to guide public and private investment in the area and tap the unrealized potential of the waterfront and the North Fort Harrison corridor.
 
“You’ve got North Ward school, the Seminole Boat Ramp, Francis Wilson Playhouse and the Pinellas Trail,” says Assistant Director of Economic Development and Housing Chuck Lane. “There are a number of assets in that neighborhood that we can take advantage of to try and build a community and build strong commercial activity on Fort Harrison.”

The city has added the North Marina area to its downtown redevelopment plan. That plan gives more specific parameters for development in the area and promotes an urban, walkable vision through the elimination of minimum parking standards for most uses and tweaking building setback requirements to accommodate wider sidewalks.

Forward Pinellas, the planning agency for countywide transportation and development issues, has also awarded the city a grant to study a Complete Streets design concept for Fort Harrison from Belleair Road up to its end point at North Myrtle Area. Planning and Development Director Michael Delk says that could include eliminating the center turn lane to add on-street parking and bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

“We feel the commercial corridor along Fort Harrison is a good opportunity for mixed-use and walkable development patterns, higher density housing and a mix of retail and residential,” Delk says.

Transforming the Seminole Boat Ramp into a destination

The busy Seminole Boat Ramp accommodates 100 to 150 boats a day during peak season. A $6.5 million facelift will add new parking lots, floating docks and other features for boaters. But the city also wants to turn the waterfront location into a draw for the general public with landscaping, new lighting, and restrooms, benches, improvements to the pocket park at the end of Seminole Street, and a trail extension linking the boat launch and the park back to Fort Harrison and the Pinellas Trail. The first phase of the project is slated for completion in nine months.

“It’s still going to continue to be a major asset to the city as far as boat launching,” Delk says. “But we want to create more public amenities around there so it is not only a major boat launch facility but an attractive waterfront location for people to visit. I describe it as deindustrializing the marina and boat ramp area and trying to make it more pedestrian friendly and inviting from a visitor standpoint. That’s why there will be landscaping, benches, and upgraded facilities for people who just want to go down and enjoy the waterfront. We want to encourage more public activity while preserving the full functionality of the ramp.”

Breathing new life into a historic school

North Ward Elementary School dates back to 1915 and includes 21,000 square feet of building space. The school district closed North Ward in 2009 and the red brick school has stood boarded behind a chain-link fence ever since. Delk says the city may put out a request for proposals from developers who have “adaptive reuse plans that preserve the historic structure.”

For its part, the North Marina master plan envisioned the school property and the nearby Francis Wilson Playhouse as a cultural hub in the north Clearwater area.
 
“We want to try to get a future use that is going to invigorate the neighborhood, enliven the street, contribute to the activity and the investment we are making nearby at the boat ramp,” Lane says. 

Creating a symbiotic business relationship
 
This August, family-owned Homestyle Barbecue will mark five years in business at 1701 N. Fort Harrison. “Sarge,” an Army veteran who cooks up ribs and pulled pork alongside his cousins, says he has heard they are the longest-lasting business in a building that has been a doctor’s office, flower shop, and ice cream parlor. Now, with Clearwater Brewing slated to open directly across Fort Harrison, Sarge says he sees some stability coming to the corridor.

“Stable is good,” he says. “When you get a few things that are stable enough, they’ll bring in more things.”

The Clearwater Brewing partners -- Ford, Howard Shirley, F. Bowling, and Rob Neff -- expect to see the two businesses feeding off one another. They plan to encourage their customers to order barbecue from across the street and bring it over to enjoy with a beer. Once the brewery opens, Sarge says Homestyle Barbecue plans to expand its Friday-Sunday business hours to include Thursday.
 
Ford says the extensive renovations to the brewery building have already transformed an eyesore into an asset.

“The transformation from when we bought it in 2017 to now is amazing,” he says. “It was a blighted building. It needed help but the bones were really good. These are the original walls. It was a sturdy little place.”

The building got an exterior facelift courtesy of a $35,000 Community Development Block Grant from the City of Clearwater for façade improvements. Interior renovations transformed an area that was once the Gulf station’s service bay into the tasting room. Behind the building, there’s a bamboo-adorned outdoor beer garden for customers who want to hang out outside.

“We think the area is going to develop out in the next few years and there’s a community here that’s not being served - literally,” Ford says. “All you need are a couple more businesses here and you have the makings of a hub.”

For more information about Clearwater development and the North Marina District, follow this link to the city's website

This story is underwritten by the City of Clearwater as part of a marketing strategy by the division of Economic Development. To learn more about becoming an underwriter of similar stories about neighborhood and community development, email 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather and the wealth of outdoor festivals.
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