CLEARWATER — Coachman Park on the city’s waterfront is poised for a radical transformation.
Clearwater plans to spend $64 million converting the modest green space and its surrounding area into a crown jewel of civic activation, complete with sparkling new developments, amenities and a 4,000-seat covered amphitheater.
But the city is also facing backlash from a small but vocal contingent: the family of E. H. Coachman, for whom Coachman Park was named. They worry about the city changing the park’s name — and its fundamental purpose.
“If this thing goes through and they do what they want to do, you better stay away from the city graveyard,” said Hugh Coachman, 83. “Because my great uncle will be turning over in his grave so much there will be an 8.0 earthquake.”
In September, the city proposed changing the name of Coachman Park and its surrounding area to Coachman Commons. Michael Delk, the assistant city manager in charge of Imagine Clearwater planning, said the “commons” concept would instill a feeling of community ownership into the Imagine Clearwater project. It would also give the city an opportunity to rebrand its sleepy downtown waterfront as it markets city parcels near Coachman Park to developers.
Hugh Coachman said he felt the change was a “slap in the face.” His great uncle specifically wanted a recreational park, not whatever is implied by a “commons,” he said.
The historical record backs this up. In 1943, E. H. Coachman wrote the City Commission a letter explaining he hoped to sell Clearwater some of his waterfront land west of Osceola Avenue near Drew Street.
He was unequivocal in describing how the land was to be used: “a public park, but not otherwise.” In 1945, he sold the plot to Clearwater for the steeply discounted price of $40,000 — about $573,300 in 2020 dollars.
Although the Clearwater Main Library now rests on some of the land Coachman sold to the city, the pioneer’s vision for a waterfront park was eventually realized. Beginning in the 1960s, the city transformed part of the Coachman property, as well as several other city-owned parcels nearby, into the largely passive green space now known as Coachman Park.
The parcels currently being marketed to developers are the former Harborview site on the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue; the old City Hall building on the north side of Pierce Street and Osceola; and a plot that was formerly owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the south side of Pierce Street and Osceola. None of those properties are on the Coachman Park footprint. And, seemingly in keeping with E. H. Coachman’s vision for downtown, Imagine Clearwater would expand the area of park space available to the public on the waterfront from about nine acres to 19 acres.
The Coachmans think Clearwater needs to be reminded about their ancestors’ legacy. The lumber mill run by E. H. Coachman and his brother S. S. Coachman more than a century ago supplied the wood for some of Pinellas County’s most prominent historical buildings, including the original Belleview Biltmore hotel. The brothers both sat on the Clearwater City Commission in its early days. S. S. Coachman, considered one of the founders of Pinellas County, was the first chairman of the Board of County Commissioners.
“Everybody in my family is against what they’re trying to do,” Hugh Coachman said.
At a City Council work session last week, the family got an encouraging signal from Clearwater’s elected officials. Delk brought a resolution to the council that would have let Coachman Park keep its name, but would also have renamed the surrounding waterfront area “Coachman Commons.”
Four of the five council members said they would support the city simply renaming the Imagine Clearwater footprint — which includes essentially the entire waterfront area west of Osceola Avenue between Pierce and Drew streets — Coachman Park.
“The Coachmans have done a lot for Clearwater. Their family is very strong here,” Council Member David Allbritton said. “My recommendation ... would be Coachman Park.”
Only Mayor George Cretekos had major reservations about calling the entire Imagine Clearwater footprint Coachman Park. The matter was eventually tabled by the council.
Still, Hugh Coachman and his sister, Shirley Coachman Moravec, 81, said they were heartened by the overall support for “Coachman Park.”
But the Coachmans’ problems with the park don’t end at the name. Hugh Coachman said some of the amenities planned for the park — such as the potential bamboo garden lined with LED light bulbs — would transform the downtown green space into a “theme park.”
And both Coachman and his sister Moravec say they have doubts about the proposed 4,000-seat covered amphitheater, which is set to replace the existing Coachman Park bandshell. Moravec said there wouldn’t be enough parking downtown for the expanded schedule of large events at the park’s amphitheater.
The Coachman siblings met Tuesday with City Manager Bill Horne to talk about their family’s impact on Clearwater. Mayoral candidate Morton Myers, who has long opposed the name change, was also in attendance.
Hugh Coachman said he felt “a little better” after the meeting because Horne said he would talk with the City Council about putting up a historical marker in Coachman Park.
Moravec said she and her sister, Joan Coachman Bates, want to help draft the marker. Even if the city’s planned upgrades to Coachman Park are eventually realized, Moravec said her family’s legacy is the most important thing.
“Everything else is fine with me as long as they don’t dump the name Coachman Park,” Moravec said.