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

“Nobody’s going to be happy with this number."
A 2017 aerial photo of Coachman Park, the future site of Clearwater's re-imagined waterfront.
A 2017 aerial photo of Coachman Park, the future site of Clearwater's re-imagined waterfront. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 31, 2020

CLEARWATER — The numbers don’t look good. The Clearwater City Council agrees on that.

The council just doesn’t think the numbers tell the whole story.

That was the takeaway from a special work session Monday at which the council agreed to press on with plans for a new, covered 4,000-seat amphitheater in the heart of the city’s Imagine Clearwater downtown redevelopment project.

They did so despite projections from a city consultant that showed the venue would cost the city at least $2.1 million per year to operate — $1.6 million more than the city currently spends every year on events at Coachman Park.

Related: Imagine Clearwater is getting more expensive and won’t stop soon. Here’s why.

“Nobody’s going to be happy with this number. But I don’t think that’s an accurate number,” council member Jay Polglaze said of the projected amphitheater budget. “I really question the data.”

The annual expense would include financing on the $14 million or so it’s going to take to build the amphitheater. The city is planning to spend another $50 million surrounding the venue with a sparkling new park and a newly refurbished Clearwater Main Library.

The data to which Polglaze referred came from Webb Management Services, Inc., which, with the help of city staff, created a detailed estimate of city costs and expenditures for the venue under three scenarios: aggressive utilization, conservative utilization and minimal utilization. The estimate cost the city $5,775.

The council agreed Monday that the conservative schedule would work best. That schedule would mean the amphitheater would be active 119 days of the year at a cost of about $2.3 million annually, the Webb projections showed.

Duncan Webb, who performed the analysis for his firm, declined to comment for this story.

Related: What a series of community meetings tells us about Imagine Clearwater

Webb’s results came from studying revenue structures at concert venues around the country, said Jim Halios, an assistant to City Manager Bill Horne. Although Webb’s findings were projections — imprecise by nature — Halios said city staff is “pretty confident” in the budget numbers.

But Polglaze said Monday he found Webb’s data insufficient in part because the consultant did not contact Tampa Bay performing arts organizations to get a sense of the local concert market.

Horne, the city manager, said Webb deliberately avoided talking to local concert promoters for the analysis so it could remain “objective.”

“We have had discussions (in the past) with Ruth Eckerd Hall. We have had discussions with LiveNation,” Horne said. “They all have a particular point of view about what we should do.”

In 2018, then-Ruth Eckerd Hall President and CEO Zev Buffman began what would become a successful lobbying effort to convince the City Council to expand and modernize the Coachman Park bandshell as a part of Imagine Clearwater.

Related: Ruth Eckerd CEO: Clearwater is blowing an opportunity with band shell

The city’s plans for the amphitheater come with a complication. Because the venue would rest on the city’s charter-protected bluff, Clearwater can’t lease the management of the amphitheater to a third party with experience running concerts. Unless voters approve a referendum saying otherwise, the government has to run the venue itself.

Still, council member David Allbritton said, the city could work to make numbers laid out by Webb Management more palatable. The venue’s expenses could be lowered, for example, by hiring fewer full time staffers than projected to run the amphitheater. Revenues could also come in higher than the consultant laid out, Allbritton said. And the venue’s naming rights and donations from local philanthropists could be additional sources of income.

Council member Hoyt Hamilton said the venue would attract people to the long-stagnant downtown, generating revenues for the city “that extend well beyond the park itself.”

“If this meeting is for us to say, ‘are we going to move forward on the amphitheater or not?,’ my answer is ‘hell yes,’” Hamilton said.

A rendering of what Clearwater's downtown waterfront will look like once Imagine Clearwater's plans come to fruition. The mock-up is oriented so the top is the western waterfront and the bottom is the the eastern waterfront. In the southwest, a lake is planned underneath the Memorial Causeway. A shaded bluff walk will run along the waterfront's eastern edge, and in the middle of the complex, Clearwater plans a 4,000-seat covered concert venue. To the north, what is now Coachman Park will be re-imagined as a new garden.
A rendering of what Clearwater's downtown waterfront will look like once Imagine Clearwater's plans come to fruition. The mock-up is oriented so the top is the western waterfront and the bottom is the the eastern waterfront. In the southwest, a lake is planned underneath the Memorial Causeway. A shaded bluff walk will run along the waterfront's eastern edge, and in the middle of the complex, Clearwater plans a 4,000-seat covered concert venue. To the north, what is now Coachman Park will be re-imagined as a new garden. [ Stantec via the City of Clearwater ]

Mayor George Cretekos was perhaps the most pessimistic of the five council members. He once again floated the idea of building the amphitheater and its canopy in phases, rather than all at once, to test the venue’s viability.

But even the mayor came around by the meeting’s end.

“The numbers are scary," Cretekos said. "But I think with proper management, with some marketing, we will be able to overcome that.”