After six-month delay, City Council unites behind 4,000-seat covered concert venue for Imagine Clearwater

It is a drastic change from the uncovered band shell design first unveiled in August. The council said an iconic draw is needed. Some residents feel duped.
The City Council on Thursday supported consultants designing an outdoor concert pavilion supported by Ruth Eckerd Hall with a fixed covering over 4,000 seats. [photo courtesy City of Clearwater]
The City Council on Thursday supported consultants designing an outdoor concert pavilion supported by Ruth Eckerd Hall with a fixed covering over 4,000 seats. [photo courtesy City of Clearwater]
Published April 5

CLEARWATER — The concert pavilion on a 4-acre green is not the only attraction in the proposed overhaul of the 66-acre waterfront. But elected officials have made clear they are counting on the amphitheater to be an iconic draw that prevents this investment from being yet another failed downtown revitalization attempt.

The City Council on Thursday gave unanimous support for consultants to design a concert pavilion with a fixed canopy over 4,000 seats, a drastic change from the simple, uncovered band shell design consultants delivered in August.

The structure itself could cost upwards of $16.4 million. If the expense is bonded out over 30 years, capital and operating could cost the city $8.7 million in the first five years alone, according to estimates Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell provided Thursday, updated since a workshop on Monday.

“The city gains and benefits with the economic impact a viable park will have, a viable entertainment venue will have over the years, and this is our opportunity,” said Mayor George Cretekos, who was initially skeptical of a large covered structure.

While the boutique outdoor amphitheater was pushed by Ruth Eckerd Hall, the business community and residents eager for a game-changing draw on the waterfront, the gradual design shift has evoked from others the same distrust that hung over previous attempts to renovate the waterfront.

“It sounds like a private takeover of our park and with the help of our politicians who like to build shiny objects that usually end up costing the taxpayers lots of money,” resident Lauren Hallahan told the council. “The stage enhancement project that has now morphed into a destination venue for others outside of our city is nothing more than corporate welfare for rich little boys and shiny objects for politicians.”

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Do Coachman Park concerts make or cost Clearwater money? The city doesn't know ***

Consultants in June delivered preliminary design plans for the waterfront redevelopment, which included a band shell similar to what exists today in Coachman Park. The design included an option for a canopy to cover 2,200 seats but Maxwell eliminated the covering before the design was presented in a public meeting in August because he said “it was not consistent” with the 2017 conceptual plan that called for Imagine Clearwater to "first and foremost function as an open space" park.

Resident Spencer Cook, who chaired the citizen committee that worked with HR&A consultants in 2016 to create the plan, said while members knew there would be a waterfront music venue, a covered amphitheater was never discussed.

The 2017 plan called for an amphitheater to accommodate large-scale events but consultants said further study was needed and they did not propose a particular design

Voters passed a referendum in November 2017 that essentially green-lighted Imagine Clearwater by allowing “construction and maintenance” of structures on the Charter-protected waterfront, although the referendum did not specifically mention the redevelopment plan.

Anne Garris, a longtime activist who helped lead the campaign to defeat a 2000 waterfront redevelopment proposal, said she supported Imagine Clearwater because it had a focus on park space, gardens and access for the public. Garris, who also served on the 2016 citizen committee, said while she knew there would be a music feature, a covered amphitheater was never brought up.

“They weren't going to talk about this big monstrosity before, because if they had, the people would have never voted to let them build on the land,” Garris said. “This place, it was intended to be a park.”

The council directed staff in October to redesign the music venue after Ruth Eckerd Hall officials pushed their idea for an amphitheater with a covering over 4,000 seats since a boutique outdoor pavilion of that size does not exist in the Tampa Bay market.

Council member Bob Cundiff said the band shell today in Coachman Park is inefficient because the city has to rent stages and equipment to accommodate most performers.

“To me it doesn't make sense to build small and then wish we had something larger for large events,” Cundiff said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Differing visions for waterfront converge in Imagine Clearwater ***

The council must now vote in May on a work order that will allow Stantec consultants to complete the final design of the waterfront, including the amphitheater. But it is not clear how the city plans to make the pavilion profitable or support the expenses of the remainder of the park.

The plan includes park space for a concert green, a garden and a retention pond; a natural bluff walk with shaded paths and terraces; a civic gateway with a gathering space, outdoor dining and splash pad; and mixed use development on the City Hall and Harvorview building sites.

Consultant Duncan Webb, who delivered a financial analysis Monday, said the 42 events projected for year one, including 25 shows with Ruth Eckerd Hall, would not be profitable. He said food and drink sales must drive revenues.

Operating the venue in the first four years would lose the city $1.2 million, with just a $22,000 profit in the fifth year, Webb said. Expanded projections Maxwell provided Thursday, with replacement costs and bonding, pushed the losses to $8.7 million in the first five years.

But council members emphasized the amphitheater was only one aspect of this massive redevelopment. When the 42 shows take place, the 4-acre green could be closed off a total of 124 days considering setting up and breaking down equipment.

But when Coachman Park is fenced off today for shows or setting up, there is not much else for the public to do on the asphalt-heavy waterfront. If Imagine Clearwater is built, the public will have access to acres of park space and activities every day of the year whether a concert is happening or not, council member Jay Polglaze said.

“At the end of this process whether we're done in five years building it, however long it takes to get this done, it will be a proud place for every single citizen of Clearwater," Polglaze said.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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