CLEARWATER — Imagine Clearwater, the city’s $64.5 million overhaul of the downtown waterfront, is at a critical phase, with preliminary design plans landing on the desk of City Council members later this month.
But more than two years since the city fast-tracked the project, one fundamental question remains: How will the planned 4,000-seat covered concert venue affect the rest of the sprawling public park?
It’s a question that Clearwater has to answer quickly. The city, led by assistant city manager Michael Delk, plans to present the initial design drawings to the public in a series of community meetings in the coming weeks.
But the potential conflict between the concert venue and the park has exposed a divide between the City Council and city staff.
To Council member Jay Polglaze, the questions about the concert venue have already been answered.
“The council has given directions. Unanimous direction. We are going this way,” Polglaze said. “We are not going to pick this thing apart from behind City Hall doors.”
But the man the city has charged with planning the project still has questions about how the venue fits in with the rest of Imagine Clearwater.
“Building a large outdoor amphitheater is a different objective than building a public open space and waterfront,” said Delk.
In an attempt to revitalize the city’s stagnant downtown, Clearwater has gone all-in on an ambitious plan to reshape major portions of the waterfront. The plans, which are centered on what is today known as Coachman Park, include a shaded bluff walk; a $6 million remake of the Clearwater Main Library; new gardens and a scenic lake in the park; a new event space at Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue and shiny new developments like apartments with ground floor retail at the former Harborview and City Hall sites.
By far the most controversial part of Imagine Clearwater has been the city’s redesign of the existing Coachman Park concert venue. City officials always planned to renovate the existing, uncovered bandshell, which Delk in an interview called “obsolete.” But the city never seriously considered anything approaching the 4,000 covered seats currently envisioned until former Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman pushed for the expansion in September 2018.
Even before Buffman’s push, city staff was skeptical of adding covered seating to the venue. In June 2018, assistant city manager Micah Maxwell, who led Imagine Clearwater before Delk, said a smaller, 2,200-seat canopy “was not consistent” with the 2017 conceptual plan for the park.
Ruth Eckerd Hall officials have said the expansion would turn the venue into a boutique open-air concert hall that would be unique to the Tampa Bay region.
The entire project was put on hold for six months in late 2018 and early 2019 as the council considered the Ruth Eckerd Hall proposal. In April, the council unanimously voted for a $14 million, 4,000-seat covered amphitheater, complete with a refurbished backstage.
The push for that venue is now coming to shove. By the end of October, the City Council will likely have 30 percent design plans for the concert venue and the park, which will be renamed “Coachman Commons.”
Even after all of the discussion, Delk said a park with a 4,000-seat amphitheater will force the city to grapple with questions about what it hopes to accomplish with Imagine Clearwater. Would a major concert at the venue close off the rest of Coachman Commons to other visitors? If the venue hosts dozens of events per year, and event planners need time to set up and break down, how many days of park access might residents lose?
Then there’s the size of the thing.
“It is a substantial structural component in the middle of the waterfront of the park,” Delk said of the venue, noting the structure will be about 315 feet wide and 55 feet tall. “Do I think this is the best way to lay out this part of the park? From a professional standpoint, the answer to that is ‘no.’”
But the five City Council members who will ultimately decide the fate of Imagine Clearwater are confident these questions can be ironed out. In separate interviews, all five said they believe in the current vision for the venue.
Some were more adamant than others. Polglaze, for example, called the covered seating “an absolute must” for events hosted during the brutal Florida summer. Mayor George Cretekos, meanwhile, said although the interplay between the park and the venue would eventually be “seamless,” the city needs more information about how the venue will affect day-to-day operations of the park.
Delk said he plans to ask HR&A Advisors, a consultant for the city, to provide the council with an analysis that shows how the venue will fit within the stated goals of Imagine Clearwater. That firm is also performing an economic analysis of the city properties on the waterfront bluff, and it played a role in crafting the 2017 Imagine Clearwater master plan.
Polglaze said he would expect any analysis to show that the planned venue will turn downtown into an economic draw.
“Why would we spend whatever the price tag is without the concert venue or the covered seating? It’s not going to work,” the council member said.
Delk wasn’t so confident in the economic prospects for the venue.
“I’d be interested in seeing some empirical evidence that says where you have large outdoor amphitheater that they create an economic boon,” Delk said. “I’m not sure that’s the case.”