Library renovation paused until Imagine Clearwater final costs are known

Last month, the City Council agreed to close the Main Library effective Sept. 25 so contractors could begin a $4 million renovation of the structure. It was to become the symbolic groundbreaking of Imagine Clearwater, the roughly $64 million plan to redevelop the downtown waterfront into a park with a concert venue, garden and a Bluff walk surrounded by a plaza with housing and retail.

But Thursday, when it came time for the council to give contractors the green light to begin work, the estimate for the library had climbed to $6.4 million with all costs factored in.

“We’ve been hearing for many, many months now that (the contractor) will be able to bring this in under time and under budget and seeing the numbers go up for the library as the first component of this is not a good omen,” said city council member Mark Bunker. “But I think it’s a project that we should continue to commit to, just see what savings we can find.”

Before pursuing the library renovation, the city will now wait to secure more concrete cost estimates for the entire 22-acre Imagine Clearwater project, a design that has been gradually changed by council members over the past few years.

In June, the council voted to move the covered amphitheater from the western edge of the park to the north side, making it so the greenspace of the 22-acre park would no longer be divided by the venue and so the sound will project to the east. But that caused consultants to have to go back to the drawing board on design documents that were nearly complete.

They had already been directed to change directions before in April 2019, when the council voted to replace the uncovered concert bandshell with a 4,000-seat covered amphitheater.

Assistant City Manager Michael Delk said he expects consultants to have the design for the reconfigured park and updated cost estimate delivered on Nov. 2, which would then go to the council for review.

“It’s not wise, I don’t think, to pull the trigger on the library yet if we don’t know what our main centerpiece is going to cost us, based on not yet having a completed design,” Delk said.

The election in March also brought three new council members to the dais, each with their own perspectives on the decisions made before them: the conceptual plan approved in February 2017, the covered amphitheater added in April 2019 and the $6 million library renovation added in June 2019.

Mayor Frank Hibbard, elected in March, has been skeptical of the library renovation. On Thursday, he questioned “whether it has all that much to do with Imagine Clearwater.”

“It’s the price of a fire station,” Hibbard said of the library renovation. “This is not insignificant and I guess the question that I have is, is it going to increase functionality that much more that it’s necessary?”

The most recent financial analysis of Imagine Clearwater is from July 2019, which shows a cost of $64.5 million, including the park, library renovation, covered amphitheater and completed demolition of the Harborview Center.

The city has identified funding to cover $49.7 million, leaving a $14 million gap. Funding so far is slated to come mostly from Penny for Pinellas one-cent sales tax revenue, city tax revenue and up to $30 million of bond proceeds. The bonds were validated by a Pinellas County judge last month.

Although construction will not begin this month on the Main Library, it will remain closed to the public except to hold council meetings and voting for the Nov. 3 election. While the Main Library is closed, the four other Clearwater branch libraries will have extended hours.