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Stalled on concert venue design, Clearwater considers hiring a consultant to help the consultant

The City Council is expected to discuss hiring former Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman, a critic of the city's original band shell design, at a meeting Thursday.
City Council member Jay Polglaze proposed hiring former Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman, above, as a consultant for the Imagine Clearwater plan’s concert venue.
City Council member Jay Polglaze proposed hiring former Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman, above, as a consultant for the Imagine Clearwater plan’s concert venue.
Published Jan. 15, 2019

CLEARWATER — There have been three meetings over the past three months on the city's roughly $50 million waterfront redevelopment project's initial design, and the City Council has still been unable to decide how many seats should be covered by an awning in the revamped concert band shell.

Now elected officials could bring on another consultant to assist the current team of consultants to help them figure it out.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Imagine Clearwater slows to a crawl as band shell redesign stalls entire project

During a work session Monday, Council member Jay Polglaze suggested hiring Zev Buffman, who retired in October as Ruth Eckerd Hall's president and CEO, as "a supplemental assistant consultant to the professional consulting staff that we've hired" for the Imagine Clearwater project. Council members David Allbritton and Bob Cundiff agreed, bringing majority support for the hire that is expected to be voted on during Thursday's council meeting.

Buffman prompted the city's reconsideration of the band shell design in August when, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, he said the modest concert pavilion with no awning proposed in Imagine Clearwater's early design was a "waste of time and money." Because Tampa Bay does not have a boutique outdoor amphitheater to attract international acts that accommodates at least 4,000 seats under a canopy like other major cities, Clearwater was missing an opportunity to build a regional attraction, he said.

Following Buffman's comments, the council on Oct. 4 directed staff and consultants to enhance the band shell design. Buffman retired the same day, although incoming Ruth Eckerd Hall chair Frank Hibbard said then the Coachman Park debate was "unequivocally" not a factor in Buffman's announcement.

Staff did not bring any new renderings to the council at a meeting Dec. 3, prompting City Manager Bill Horne to direct Stantec to design a band shell that has a covering over 3,000 seats, a compromise for the council to evaluate.

Maxwell presented the revised renderings Monday, which showed a 3,000-seat cover, expanded back of house facilities for office and storage, and a VIP area with extra seating. But council members were still not sure a 3,000-seat covering was sufficient.

"There's a lot of moving parts to this," Allbritton said. "I almost feel I need to have someone that really understands this ... we have that person in our community."

Mayor George Cretekos strongly pushed back, saying Stantec consultants can listen to Buffman's input as a citizen but "he's not driving this ship."

"I for one am a little put out that after all these years we're still going back to trying to build what Zev Buffman wants," Cretekos said. "It's not want Zev Buffman wants. It's what the community wants."

In a later interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Cundiff said he ran into Buffman at a restaurant in Countryside on Christmas Eve and asked him to consider helping the city as a consultant after months of delays in deciding on the band shell size. Buffman then set up meetings this month to discuss the idea with the other four council members.

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The city hired Stantec consultants in February 2018 for $834,238 to create the preliminary design for the 66 acres of Imagine Clearwater, including a garden, a revamped concert green and band shell, a gateway plaza, and winding walkways along the bluff. To date the city has paid Stantec $448,863, said budget manager Kayleen Kastel.

In an interview Monday, Buffman said he would not work for free in order to maintain professionalism but that his fee is "totally subject to negotiation."

Buffman answered Cretekos' question for free during Monday's meeting about how many pavilion seats he thinks should be covered: 4,000, which is 1,000 more than what's in the most current design. But in a later interview with the Times, Buffman said he was proposing a 90-day work contract where he would provide advice on what kinds of shows and events could program the pavilion to make it sustainable, how to build screens to project concerts to boaters alongside the waterfront stage, and other logistics like sight-line adjustments.

"Of any individual living today, I have built more amphitheaters currently still running successfully around the country than anyone else alive," Buffman said, referring to his projects in Southern California, Palm Beach, Charlotte, Arizona and Washington D.C. Before leading Ruth Eckerd Hall from 2011 until his October retirement, Buffman, 88, spent a storied career in entertainment ranging from building venues to Broadway productions and producing the theatrical debut of Elizabeth Taylor.

"I want to make sure we do it right the first time," said Polglaze, who was appointed to the Council Dec. 6 to fill a vacancy through March 2020. "I think we need to engage the experts in our community who have built several of these."

City Attorney Pam Akin said while Buffman is "extremely qualified," the city has not conducted an analysis to determine what size concert pavilion market demand would support. Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said in October the city would conduct an economic impact study but that study has not been done.

"My opinion, you need a real market study," Akin said. "If you're going to make this kind of decision I think you need to get that information."

Buffman agreed, stating along with his consulting on programing, the city should commission a 20-day study to evaluate the cost and revenue of a pavilion that would attract the type of acts that would perform multiple nights in a 4,000 covered seat boutique amphitheater.

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