CLEARWATER — Bill Jonson has never been one for dramatics in more than three decades of local activism and four terms on the City Council.
He carries annotated binders to back up his arguments and voices his positions at a decibel that would suit a monastery.
But Jonson’s words drew cheers and an “Amen” from the crowd at a recent mayoral election forum. There, he condemned the council’s decision last April to add a boutique amphitheater to the design for the downtown waterfront’s revitalized park.
An amphitheater won’t save the long-struggling downtown, Jonson said. And it’s not what residents signed up for when they gave their blessing in a 2017 referendum to allow the city to build on the charter-protected bluff.
“You might say it was municipal malpractice, that it changed the scope of the park,” he told about 100 people in a hall at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. The moment highlighted one of the biggest issues looming over the March 17 city election.
The outcome of three City Council races will determine the shape of Imagine Clearwater, the city’s most ambitious attempt in decades to bring life to the depressed downtown.
Could the amphitheater proposed as one of its signature features be the wow-factor that lifts downtown to Tampa Bay’s cultural stage? Or is it just an expensive, shiny object that flies in the face of the green space-centric park many residents envisioned?
Three of the four mayoral candidates oppose the covered concert venue added to the design by the council at the urging of Ruth Eckerd Hall. The nine hopefuls running for two other council seats have varying stances, from charging ahead to nixing the amphitheater entirely.
With two sitting council members firmly in support of the amphitheater, the math is clear: Whoever is elected to the remaining three seats will determine how the project proceeds.
Almost a year after Clearwater residents voted to allow general “construction and maintenance” on the waterfront, then-Ruth Eckerd Hall President and CEO Zev Buffman met with each Clearwater City Council member about a big idea.
It was September 2018, and Imagine Clearwater was already a massive undertaking of 22 city-owned acres. It included a $50 million redesign of Coachman Park and the nearby library, a winding trail overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, a garden and a gateway plaza with a splash pad — all surrounded by retail and residential projects. But Buffman felt the city was missing a major opportunity.
Officials had to think bigger when it came to the proposed Coachman Park concert venue, Buffman reasoned. The biggest acts wouldn’t perform at an uncovered, slightly expanded version of the existing bandshell. But that’s what the early Imagine Clearwater plans called for.
The City Council responded by putting Imagine Clearwater on hold for six months while a consultant studied the amphitheater’s merits. The city paid consultant Duncan Webb $41,000 for his analysis, which concluded 3,000 covered seats would be sufficient. Buffman still pushed for 4,000, arguing anything smaller would compete with city-owned Ruth Eckerd Hall seven miles to the east.
In April 2019, council members voted unanimously to support the larger amphitheater. In November, they decided to issue $30 million in city bonds to help pay for it. Last month, after a second study by Webb found the venue would cost at least $2 million a year to operate and finance, the council reaffirmed its commitment to the amphitheater.
The amphitheater issue is perhaps most pronounced in the mayor’s race. Frank Hibbard, the well-connected former mayor running again for his old job, also chairs the Ruth Eckerd Hall board.
In September 2018, Hibbard and Ruth Eckerd Hall vice president Bobby Rossi accompanied Buffman in his private meetings with each council member to advocate for the covered amphitheater.
Hibbard still stands behind the need for a bigger venue.
“If anybody wants downtown Clearwater to be more of a success, you have to bring a few more people down there to help support the businesses," Hibbard said. “If you just want to give up on downtown Clearwater, then just scrap the park and put some walking trails and some playground equipment and a little stage and call it a day.”
Hibbard’s concern is taxpayer money. He does not believe Webb used accurate data to calculate operating costs. If the final design and fiscal analysis confirm excessive costs, Hibbard said he would not back the amphitheater.
The other candidates for mayor — lawyer and environmental activist Elizabeth “Sea Turtle” Drayer and small business owner Morton Myers — have echoed Jonson’s support for the smaller scale idea in the original plan.
“I think it overwhelms the green space," Drayer said. "I think it’s going to change the nature of the park. I think it’s going to be expensive to build and maintain.”
In the four-way race for council Seat 3, Bob Cundiff, who is running for a second term, has defended his vote to add the amphitheater. The green space will remain with the gardens, splash pads, ponds and a gazebo, he said.
Bud Elias, owner of an insurance brokerage firm who is running for Seat 3, also said the amphitheater could be an economic engine, bringing businesses to empty storefronts surrounding the park. “There aren’t too many chances left in our drawer of possibilities to re-energize downtown,” he said.
But Kathleen Beckman, also running to unseat Cundiff, says the city should scale back the amphitheater “to offset any need for additional funding” and incorporate solar and energy-efficient designs.
Scott Thomas, the final candidate for Seat 3, wants to see residents vote directly on the amphitheater in another referendum.
In the race for the open Seat 2, Lina Teixeira, a downtown business owner who served on the Downtown Development Board, has said she supports the amphitheater.
Mark Bunker, a longtime critic of the Church of Scientology, said the price tag is too high without knowing if Scientology intends to sabotage the city’s efforts by squatting on nearly 100 downtown retail properties bought since 2017 by companies tied to the church.
City officials say Scientology leader David Miscavige told them in January that he doesn’t know anything about the properties. The church has not taken a public stand on Imagine Clearwater or the amphitheater, but city officials said Miscavige reacted positively when they showed him renderings of the plan.
Three other candidates for Seat 2 — small business owner Mike Mannino, former Pinellas Sheriff’s Office technician Eliseo Santana and attorney Bruce Rector — all want to see the city’s plans for the amphitheater slowed until officials gather more information.
Mannino wants to see the city hold listening sessions with the public.
“The citizens voted to renovate, but I don’t believe what they thought they were voting for is part of this (plan),” Mannino said.
The city hosted seven town halls in 2016, and that feedback formed the Imagine Clearwater master plan that envisioned a simple band shell and green space park. And at a series of community meetings in December, the city showed residents early Imagine Clearwater renderings with the updated concert venue.
Residents were asked to fill out a survey that asked how they felt about various aspects of the plans on a scale of 1 to 3. The amphitheater scored a 2.3.
March won’t be the last time voters weigh in on the direction of Imagine Clearwater.
The plan calls for retail and residential projects to border the park to bring residents, shoppers and tourists downtown. Because some of that land is protected by the city charter, Clearwater would need voter approval to sell or lease two key parcels to developers.
Assistant City Manager Michael Delk, who is in charge of Imagine Clearwater, said adding new mixed-use developments near the park is nothing short of “critical” to the project’s success. The city is about to start soliciting ideas for the properties from developers. The referendum on potential redevelopment plans could come as soon as November.
If the city continues to advance the amphitheater without adequate public input, it risks losing the next all-or-nothing referendum, Jonson said.
“If you want a partnership with the public," he said, "you need to involve them in the process.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.