The Rev. Willy Rice was halfway through his service one Sunday morning three years ago when he announced the news his congregation had been waiting to hear. Their historic, downtown church, Calvary Baptist, finally had a buyer. Opus South, a nationally recognized developer, was willing to pay $15-million. Calvary now had the money to complete its new complex across town. And the Tampa-based condo builder had a site with one of the best views on Florida's west coast. Fast forward to today.
Downtown Clearwater's skyline is changing for the first time in decades. Construction cranes are building high-rises.
Opus' concrete and steel tower, going up where Calvary Baptist stood for almost a century, will top out at 25 stories. Three blocks east, a 15-story project is going in. A few blocks farther east, 88 high-end residences are being built.
And there is more. Clusters of townhomes are popping up on the flanks of downtown. Foundation work has started at the site of a fourth high-rise. And a Marriott hotel is on the way.
It's a dramatic turnaround for an area that has been in a free fall since the mid 1970s, when the Church of Scientology arrived and secretly bought downtown's biggest hotel, then started gobbling up properties nearby.
In all, about $385-million in public and private sector investment is pouring into downtown Clearwater. After fits and starts, the city is attracting believers with deep pockets, ones willing to make plays where others - including Clearwater voters - previously saw too much risk.
Clearwater's downtown is an odd patchwork of government buildings, empty storefronts and Scientology's international spiritual headquarters.
On an average day, about 600 city workers, more than 1,700 county and court system employees, and 1,400 uniformed Scientology staffers are at work here.
But walk downtown and you wonder: Where is everybody?
Look in the store windows facing Cleveland Street, the main drag, and about half are vacant. Parking is limited for the few businesses that do bring in customers - a couple pizza joints, coffee shops and the post office.
But this picture didn't bother the decisionmakers at Opus South, builders of stylish condos in Naples and St. Petersburg.
The Calvary church site, sitting atop a 40-foot limestone bluff, had been on the market for four years when Opus drew a bead on it. With its breathtaking views of Clearwater Harbor and the beach a little farther beyond, Opus saw potential.
"I have always said downtown Clearwater was a diamond in the rough," said Bill West, director of real estate for Opus. "And every day I'd drive by (the church property) and say, 'I've got to call, I've got to call, I've got to call.'"
The two sides began talking in the fall of 2004 and closed in October 2005.
Calvary's venerable sanctuary, topped by a green octagonal dome, was bulldozed a few months later. Work soon began on what would become the city's tallest building, Water's Edge, with 153 condominiums.
Opus priced the units starting in the $400,000s, with 12 penthouses for as much as $2-million. Marketing was launched a few months before the condo market soured, and Opus reported sales went well.
The Opus project created not only buzz, but new confidence in downtown. "They were what we needed," Mayor Frank Hibbard said.
Just three blocks from Water's Edge, an announced condo project on the planning table for years suddenly came to life. Daytona Beach builder Felix Amon took over for a couple of local developers who got $1.25-million in city seed money in exchange for eventually creating 100 public parking spaces in what was to be a 15-story retail-condo complex called Station Square.
Amon, whose company Amon Investments is working on 20 residential projects on Florida's east coast, said he "got a good deal" for Station Square, but also was attracted by the gusto garnered by Water's Edge. Crews have built six levels in what will be a $90-million tower with 126 condos, some storefronts and two restaurants.
Also encouraged by downtown's new promise was Clearwater developer Guy Bonneville, who bought a nearby office building in late 2004 because "the stars were aligned."
Not only was private development picking up, he also was impressed by city efforts to improve the area.
"(They) created a buzz and we're willing to take a risk to invest," said Bonneville, who recently teamed with Spain-based ESPACIO USA to overhaul Cleveland Street's 1100 Building.
The pair are spending $45-million to build 88 residential units in the existing tower and in a lower, connecting building. The complex also will have 43,000 square feet of commercial and retail space.
"We've never had this much development occurring at once," said Alan Bomstein, a commercial developer whose company headquarters has been downtown for 30 years. "Historically, we've had one episode, one event, one building, one announcement that would happen and everyone would jump on the bandwagon and say we're revitalizing.
"But with the synergy out there now," Bomstein added, "you can't say it's just one fool building one building. No, it's unlikely we have three or four fools out there with the way the work is progressing."
Not all the action, though, is high-rises.
On the downtown's south side, Publix built a smallish store five years ago. Across the street, Tampa-based High Point Development is finishing its 24-unit Terra City Homes. And adjacent to it is Old Clearwater City Flats, 48 new townhomes are where a Scotty's home-improvement store and a warehouse once stood.
A 115-room Marriott Residence Inn will be built on Court Street, the route to the beach. And on downtown's northern edge, bulldozers are grading a lot to make way for a condo project called Island View. Developers say they have sold roughly 40 percent of the 111 units in the project's $80-million first phase.
About 160 condos and townhomes are in downtown Clearwater's 270 acres now. More than 550 are on the way.
In crawling back to health, downtown Clearwater confronted several obstacles.
It's not served by a limited-access highway. And its main attraction - a wide, powdery beach - is across the harbor.
Further, city leaders had been unable through the years to agree on a vision for downtown's renewal.
One view: Recruit companies to downtown, which in turn would spin off new retailers and restaurants. But that strategy didn't work.
Another view: Convert an old Maas Brothers department store near the waterfront into a retail and convention center. That strategy netted SteinMart and a too-small trade center named Harborview. SteinMart has worked. Not Harborview. It requires a $340,000 annual city subsidy.
Then there is Scientology. With its buildings, staffers and visitors in downtown, the church's ubiquitous operations tend to be defining.
"Has the church's presence stereotyped the downtown? The answer is yes," City Manager Bill Horne said. "... There are those who are uncomfortable and will stay away."
The church arrived just as Clearwater's suburbs were coming into vogue. Downtown merchants and other businesses were moving out, following a trend playing out in urban areas nationwide.
Those who stayed coexisted with a church group that in its early years was mistrusted, if not feared. As the church expanded its holdings, downtown's retail base diminished. The church spent millions fixing up some of Clearwater's best-known buildings, but struggled to win credit for their efforts, much less acceptance.
This was a tableau that spooked Clearwater residents. Major downtown improvement proposals along Clearwater's still-green downtown waterfront were rejected soundly by voters in 2000 and again in 2004.
But last year, as Water's Edge was climbing out of the ground and the other projects started to take shape, voters mollified.
They narrowly approved a city proposal to build up to 140 boat slips and a boardwalk in Clearwater Harbor, just off Coachman Park and in the shadow of the new condo tower.
The small marina, envisioned as attractive to boaters, anglers and anyone simply wanting a pretty place to stroll, is just one in a slate of publicly financed improvements that the city has pushed through in recent years in hopes of encouraging investment beyond that of Scientology. The city dubbed this strategy "solution by dilution."
Clearwater's new bridge to the beach, Memorial Causeway, opened in 2005, rerouting beach-bound motorists off Cleveland Street and out of downtown. The city then spent $9-million to dress up Cleveland Street with stylized medians, improved sidewalks and planters all aimed at creating a pedestrian-friendly environment. That work is to be finished at year's end.
"Before, the commitment was never right," Bomstein said. "In the past the city's efforts were not so sincere. It was more talk than walk. But this time they're spending money."
Others agree. "It all feeds off each other," said lawyer Lou Kwall, whose law office has been in downtown for 25 years. "People bring people and people bring business, and business brings people."