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Clearwater may not be able to ban guns at its new waterfront amphitheater

The city can’t ban guns at Coachman Park today. How might that affect the city’s effort to book concerts at its proposed new venue?

CLEARWATER — In February, an estimated crowd of over 13,000 attended the city’s annual two-day Sea-Blues Festival at Coachman Park. Residents with concealed carry permits were allowed, as they are at every event at the public park, to carry guns into the festival.

The Clearwater Police Department reported no major incidents involving guns, or any other weapons.

Those who wished to legally arm themselves at the festival were able to do so because of how Clearwater interprets Florida law. In 2011, the Legislature passed an expansive measure which prohibited local governments from regulating the possession of guns.

Even individual events sponsored or run by third-party companies at the city-owned Coachman Park fall under that law, City Attorney Pam Akin said.

None of this has resulted in much controversy at Coachman Park events over the years.

But now, with the city hoping to build a 4,500-seat amphitheater at the historic park, Clearwater could be headed toward a conflict with artists who do not want to perform in a venue where guns are allowed.

Aerial view of Coachman Park on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020 in Clearwater.
Aerial view of Coachman Park on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020 in Clearwater. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“Some artists require the banning of firearms as part of their contract,” Ruth Eckerd Hall Chief Executive Officer and President Susan Crockett said in an emailed statement. “Not everyone, but it is becoming more common, especially for those artists who have experienced threats of some kind.”

Related: Clearwater election could clinch — or kill — downtown amphitheater

Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter said security officials, who conduct screenings with metal detectors outside Coachman Park events, ask residents with legal firearms not to bring them into the park. In Slaughter’s opinion, if the resident insists on carrying, the city currently has no legal recourse.

“I think there are other venues that may not interpret the law the same way I do,” Slaughter said.

The city’s interpretation could change if Clearwater were to add, as noted in the Florida Statutes, “an establishment licensed to dispense alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises” to Coachman Park. Slaughter noted concealed carry is not allowed at such facilities.

But if the Coachman Park amphitheater were to be managed the same way the city currently runs events at the park, the city’s gun policy would not change, the police chief confirmed.

John Valentino, a senior vice president at AEG Presents, an entertainment company which has partnered with the city on past concerts in the park, said he hoped Clearwater would reconsider its interpretation of the law.

“If an artist or an entity is renting a facility or paying to be there that night, I feel they should be able to control their destiny as to what is allowed or not allowed,” Valentino said.

The amphitheater, which could one day serve as perhaps the most identifiable feature of the city’s $64 million Imagine Clearwater downtown waterfront redevelopment effort, is slated to be built on the city’s charter-protected bluff.

Related: Guns are allowed at the Florida Strawberry Festival. Beer, bottled water and pets are not.

That poses another serious obstacle for officials who might wish to ban guns at concerts there. Under Clearwater’s interpretation of the law, leasing or transferring ownership of the amphitheater to a private entity would allow the city to circumvent the state preemption, Akin said. If Clearwater officials were to solicit such a lease — like the one Ruth Eckerd Hall uses to run the city-owned building in east Clearwater — they would need the approval of voters at a referendum.

A photo of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater from October 2019.
A photo of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater from October 2019. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Valentino noted that AEG Presents has worked with municipalities that interpret Florida’s gun law differently.

“There are instances of venues where we have a one-night lease, and we restrict items that come in,” Valentino said. “I would hope the city of Clearwater would adopt a similar policy.”

Republican state Sen. Ed Hooper, whose district includes Clearwater, was a state representative in 2011, when the preemption law was passed. He voted for the bill when it hit the House floor.

Related: Judge strikes down penalties for local governments that pass gun-control laws

When asked whether he would consider Clearwater’s interpretation to be an unintended consequence of the law, he said, “No, I would not.”

Valentino said AEG Live still looked forward to doing business with the city at its new amphitheater. And Ruth Eckerd Hall spokeswoman Katie Pedretty added that the gun law would “not impede us from continuing to bring quality entertainment” to Coachman Park.

It was former Ruth Eckerd Hall President and CEO Zev Buffman who, in fall 2018, began lobbying the city to build a covered amphitheater in Coachman Park with at least 4,000 seats.

Buffman argued then that Clearwater had a chance to build an outdoor amphitheater that would fill a void in the Tampa Bay concert market. Ruth Eckerd Hall’s auditorium seats about 2,200. Between its covered seats and its lawn, MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheater in Tampa seats nearly 20,000. The Imagine Clearwater amphitheater would be able to host up to about 14,500 between its covered seats and concert green, said Jim Halios, an assistant to City Manager Bill Horne.

In April 2019, after six months of wrangling, the City Council directed consultants to draw up plans to add the boutique amphitheater to Imagine Clearwater.

Related: Imagine Clearwater amphitheater cost is ‘scary,’ but city still plans to build it

In part because of noise, parking and cost concerns, the amphitheater has proven in some circles to be the most controversial part of Imagine Clearwater. The waterfront redevelopment project is set to include a wholesale renovation and expansion of Coachman Park; renovations to the main library downtown and potential new mixed-use housing developments along the waterfront.

The City Council in January directed staff to pursue a “conservative” events schedule of about 45 concert days per year at the amphitheater. Currently, Coachman Park hosts 12 concert days annually.

Clearwater officials admit they have little idea how the city’s potential inability to restrict guns will affect the recruiting of artists to play the venue.

“We do understand that it’s going to have an effect,” Halios said. “How much of an effect? That’s to be determined.”

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

2020 CLEARWATER CITY ELECTIONS

City voters will decide three City Council races and six ballot referendums. Here’s what voters need to know:

MAIL BALLOTS: To request one, send an email to mailballot@votepinellas.com or call (727) 464-8683. The deadline to request a mail ballot is March 7 at 5 p.m.

EARLY VOTING: Runs from March 7-15. Weekday early voting is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekend hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To find locations, go to votepinellas.com.

ELECTION DAY: March 17. Polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

VOTER’S GUIDE: The Tampa Bay Times asked the 13 candidates to respond to nine questions. Here’s where they stand on the issues.

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