Writer: Joshua Andino
2 min read April 2022— From budgets to sidewalks and development, Clearwater City Manager Jon Jennings is getting the job done.
Bright sunshine. Clean beaches. Easy living. These are just some of the characteristics that come to mind when thinking about the City of Clearwater, located on the western coast of Florida. The quality of life that Clearwater offers is no accident, however. It is the result of years of steady leadership that has been able to anticipate problems and address them effectively. Now, it’s Jennings’ turn to keep the city moving forward.
Jennings came into the job with big shoes to fill. The previous city manager, Bill Horne, had spent over 20 years in the post. Before his passing, Horne told Invest: what his replacement would find upon coming into his new role. “They will lead one of the best local government organizations anywhere. The new city manager will lead an organization that during the last 20 years has gotten better at delivering municipal services. The new person will not come into an organization that is in trouble or in crisis. They are facing a community and organization that will provide the opportunity to make it even better. That’s what I will say to my replacement.”
Jennings, settling into his role after just six months, couldn’t agree more with his predecessor, who unexpectedly passed in August 2021. “Clearwater is blessed to have a visionary city council and mayor,” said Jennings during an interview with Invest:. That having been said, the city manager is looking to tackle a number of priorities that include everything from sidewalk maintenance to making the city more sustainable, a key concern for any city on the water, and engaging more with the city’s largest landowner, the Church of Scientology. First on the agenda is streamlining the city’s government and implementing an effective budget that does away with redundancy and maximizes taxpayers’ dollars.
“With my first budget, I will be focused on the reorganization of the city. There are several departments with functions that are not as efficient as I would like.” Jennings emphasized his belief in efficient city management and his desire to reimagine the organizational structure of certain departments. A key example is the city’s sidewalks, where he had noticed overlapping jurisdictions. Both “our Parks and Recreation and Engineering Departments have responsibility over city sidewalks. Often, there is work being done by one department without the other knowing about it. That is an efficiency problem. We need to be focused on excellent delivery of core services that are uniquely the responsibility of the municipal government,” Jennings said.
The new city manager is not unfamiliar with getting things done. Coming from Portland, Maine where he spent a six-year tenure as city manager, Jennings’ focus was on sustainability. Landfills were converted to solar panel arrays, over $100 million was spent on sewage and stormwater pipe replacement projects, and Portland’s tourism-heavy economy became increasingly diverse, attracting corporate headquarters and the new Roux Institute at Northeastern University centered on research and technology. Prior to his time in politics and city governance, Jennings worked as an assistant coach and scout for the Boston Celtics in the 1980s. Later, he served in the Clinton administration as acting assistant attorney general for legislative affairs and served under Thurgood Marshall Jr. in the office of cabinet affairs.
Now working in Clearwater, Jennings is looking to move the city government into a new full-time city hall. It is in its fourth year of leasing space from a downtown office tower. Jennings wants to accelerate the design and relocation to the new city hall, which would be a government campus adjacent to the city’s police station and its municipal services building.
A new home for Clearwater’s government isn’t the only downtown opportunity Jennings sees. The Church of Scientology is the largest landowner in the city’s downtown, with dozens of LLCs linked to the Church having purchased property through the years. Today, while much of the property sits vacant, Jennings sees opportunity. “The Church is a significant landowner in Downtown Clearwater so the idea that we could not work or talk with the largest landowner in that area seemed like a missed opportunity. We have developed a business relationship here where we can talk and come to an agreement on how to activate all the properties the Church and some of their parishioners own.”
Jennings’s willingness to engage with the Church is beginning to pay off. In February, and after months of private negotiations, an informal agreement was struck by Jennings and Miscavige to restore the facades of three Church-controlled buildings on Cleveland Street and renovate the interiors. “As a person who believes everyone should be welcomed in the city, I believe it is time to put the past behind us and work with the Church in a new era of cooperation and progress,” said Jennings. “This will be one of the most significant opportunities on the horizon for the next three to six months.”
The overall economic diversification of the city, stemming from development opportunities in downtown and across Clearwater prompted by reconsiderations in the aftermath of the pandemic, have been top of mind for Jennings. He considers housing a priority, and while many other cities may be scratching their heads on how to address housing affordability, Jennings views it as a supply and demand issue. “Part of the responsibility for the government is the ability to incentivize future property development and redevelopment for affordable and mixed-income units,” he said.
Overall, Jennings is excited for what the future holds. “We are seeing the trends of the next wave of investment in Clearwater. I am incredibly bullish on the city. For the next couple of years, we will make sure the city is well maintained and moving forward in a lot of different areas.” While Jennings may have had big shoes to fill, the new Clearwater city manager seems to be a perfect fit. “Clearwater is on the move and nothing will hold us back.” It seems the same can be said of Jennings.
For more information, visit: