25 Sep AiroAV Announced Developer-led committee pushes Clearwater Landings vote. Gr…
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that most of the 77-acre Landings Golf Club would be leased if voters approve a November referendum.
CLEARWATER — As voters prepare to decide on Nov. 3 whether the city should lease most of its 77-acre Landings Golf Club for a developer to turn it into a light industrial complex, two factions have emerged to push each side.
Advocating for the referendum is Jobs for Clearwater, a political committee chaired by the proposed developer, Rob Webster of Harrod Properties. To handle the finances, the committee hired accountants Nancy and Robert Watkins, who have worked on dozens of GOP campaigns across Florida and the U.S.
The Watkinses have acted as committee treasurers for everyone from Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio, to President Trump’s longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone.
Fighting against the referendum is Keep Keene Green, a grassroots contingent of residents using social media, door knocking and sign waving.
The Landings referendum is the latest tension between development and greenspace in Florida’s most densely populated county. As the city attempts to bring economic diversity to Clearwater’s tax base, it’s being met with skepticism from residents who question the ever-growing sprawl.
On Jobs for Clearwater’s website, Mayor Frank Hibbard, city council members Hoyt Hamilton and David Allbritton, and a half dozen business advocates tout the redevelopment of the golf course along Keene Road that borders Clearwater Airpark.
The city’s economic development staff worked to negotiate a deal with Harrod that would bring 710,000 square feet of industrial manufacturing to 57 of the Landings’ 77 acres. The plan calls for 8 acres of parkland and a 12-acre driving range.
Economic Development and Housing Director Denise Sanderson estimates the project would generate $9.7 million in net benefits over 10 years between the lease and utility revenues, and taxes and fees, minus the cost of government services. The current golf course operator pays the city $12,000 a year in rent.
Harrod has not yet secured any tenants for the nine proposed buildings. But the group is building for light manufacturing like medical suppliers and assembly uses and estimates the complex would produce 1,700 direct and 1,581 spin-off jobs at an average salary of $47,076.
“This provides the best of all worlds,” Webster said. “It’s the true live, work, play. You’ve got a park, you’ve got golf and also the opportunity for high paying jobs close to where you live.”
But that economic pitch is unconvincing to residents who fear the loss of greenspace and the development that could overwhelm nearby neighborhoods.
The industrial area of Hercules Avenue is directly east of the Landings and the airpark, but condos and single family homes border the west and south sides. Timothy Promen, a retired landscape architect who lives a mile south of the Landings, worries about extra traffic from the complex that will be routed to Keene Road.
“You don’t put a warehouse in the middle of a residential, community area,” Promen said.
Keep Keene Green founder Beth Davis, who lives two blocks south of the Landings, first heard about the proposal from a neighbor in May, as she was handing out voter registration forms. As news spread, a small group began meeting weekly in a nearby park to strategize.
They launched a Facebook page that now has just shy of 350 followers. Davis estimates they’ve knocked on 2,000 doors and have handed out 3,000 homemade flyers in parks and businesses. Local dog walkers helped distribute the literature.
“Hundreds of trees and ponds, currently providing home to turtles, birds, ducks, pollinators and other wildlife will be replaced with pavement, three and four axle trucks, light pollution and some 50-foot high warehouses contributing to more stormwater runoff,” reads one flyer.
When their GoFundMe page raised $400, they were able to buy uniform signs to post around the city. But after the page raised $500, the city clerk informed them they would have to register as a political committee in order to solicit more donations.
Davis said her group will forgo formally organizing and will instead pay for efforts out of pocket.
“It feels like a burden because everybody is busy,” Davis said. “We have moms with kids that just left for college, people are working through COVID, some have kids at home.”
Jobs for Clearwater does not have to file its first financial report showing contributions and expenditures until Oct. 12.
But Kyle Parks, principal of B2 Communications, a public relations agency hired by the developer, said the committee expects to pay for digital advertising, direct mailers and social media outreach. Amplify Clearwater, the local chamber of commerce, has committed to spreading the word to the business community, Parks said.
As far as hiring some of the state’s most well-known Republican campaign accountants, Webster said it was about legitimacy.
“We’re a development company, so we don’t have any experience in referendums,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re in full compliance and being transparent.”
Davis said it is clear Keep Keene Green will be out-financed. She doesn’t expect to get the backing of the business community and won’t be able to pay for direct mailers or ads. Their strategy, she said, is personal.
“People with money usually win, and they tell their story the way they want to tell it,” Davis said. “We are telling our story. It’s just a bad idea, we are in the middle of a recession. We do not need 710,000 square feet of light industrial and most importantly it will never be green again.”