CLEARWATER — For six months, final design work on the Imagine Clearwater plan to overhaul downtown's 66-acre waterfront has been halted while the city went back to the drawing board on one element: the concert pavilion that will anchor the 4-acre green.
While the consultant tasked with determining the most feasible structure presented his findings Monday, it was clear the City Council was still divided on the best path forward.
New York based consultant Duncan Webb, whom the city paid $41,000 for his study, argued the city did not need to invest in an outdoor amphitheater with a covering over 4,000 seats as Ruth Eckerd Hall officials have advocated for. Instead, Webb said a stage with 2,500 to 3,000 covered seats would be sufficient because the real draw for promoters looking to host intimate shows in an outdoor venue will be the green's capacity to hold 15,000 patrons in total.
He estimated it could cost between $9.6 million and $11.3 million for a stage with a fixed covering, plus up to an additional $1.5 million for retractable feature, a price that would go up with a larger canopy. He estimated it could cost $1.2 million to operate in preparation and the first four years, which would include six employees dedicated to running the amphitheater
"I'm sure there will be lots of pressure, lots of people saying 'gosh we really need more seats, more seats,'" Webb told the Council on Monday. "That's a valid position because for the outside promoters wanting to come in, they will make more money with more seats. But I'm not sure you necessarily make more money."
Ruth Eckerd Hall acting president Susan Crockett and vice president Bobbi Rossi said Monday that they disagreed with Webb's finding. Because Tampa Bay does not currently have a boutique outdoor amphitheater to host intimate shows in an outdoor setting, at least 4,000 covered seats is what's needed to succeed, they said.
Ruth Eckerd Hall estimated it could program at least 25 shows a year if the venue had a covering over 4,000 seats. Without that feature, Rossi said Ruth Eckerd would most likely pull back to program events on "a show by show basis" as it does today.
"Four thousand is the magic number," Rossi said. "That's the sweet spot that sets apart these venues and the demand for this would be more for the city, for us and for our promoters."
Council members are expected to vote Thursday on the concept to give Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell and consultants direction on how to proceed with the final design.
Council members David Allbritton, Bob Cundiff and Jay Polglaze made clear during and after the meeting that a venue with 4,000 covered seats is a smarter investment. Mayor George Cretekos and council member Hoyt Hamilton both said they are not sure investing in 4,000 seats is justified.
But Webb's financial estimates were based only on the 2,500 to 3,000 covered-seat range. He said Monday that he could not provide estimates for a larger structure.
"I am 100 percent, absolutely opposed to the 3,000-seat capacity," Polglaze said.
Polglaze pointed to how the highly successful St. Augustine Amphitheater added 700 seats this year, which he said proves a trend toward more seating in the boutique market. But those 700 new seats are in the uncovered section, bringing total seating to 4,633 in the venue that has covering over 3,108 seats, St. Augusting special events coordinator Noell Dooley confirmed.
Cretekos said beyond finances, he is concerned a structure covering 4,000 seats could overwhelm the green space that is intended to be an open space for the community.
The Imagine Clearwater plan proposes building a new garden in what is now Coachman Park; the green for concerts where there is currently a parking lot; a lake under the Memorial Causeway; a half–mile Bluff Walk with shaded paths, gardens and terraces; a gateway plaza with water features and event space at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue; and mixed use developments on the current City Hall and Harborview building sites.
Webb's financial estimates were based on the pavilion hosting 42 events in the first year. There are 27 event days currently hosted in Coachman Park.
"I really need it to be something that stands out,” Cretekos said. “I don't want it to just be a band shell but I don't want it to overpower the whole green area.”
In explaining what kind of direction he will be looking for Thursday, Maxwell emphasized that more divergence and discussions over the concert pavilion will only continue to delay the design of the final project, which was supposed to be advanced in October.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.