CLEARWATER — The City Council finalized changes to Imagine Clearwater’s design that will bring the city closer to breaking ground on the roughly $64 million downtown waterfront redevelopment project.
The council members voted unanimously Thursday night to scrap the addition of a fifth level to the Main Library, which would have featured a rooftop civic space at a cost of $5 million.
They also voted 4-1 to move the covered amphitheater from the western edge of the park to the north side, making it so the greenspace of the 22-acre park is no longer bifurcated by the venue and so the sound projects to the east. City Council member Kathleen Beckman voted no.
Thursday’s discussion on the amphitheater appeared to settle more than a year of debate over the venue’s permanent canopy feature covering 4,000 seats, locking in the support of four of five council members.
In April 2019, the city council voted 5-0 to add the 4,000-seat covering to the amphitheater’s design, a change made more than a year after residents essentially greenlit the Imagine Clearwater concept by passing a referendum that allowed general “construction and maintenance” on the waterfront.
In March, three new council members took office: Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker, who opposed the covering, and Mayor Frank Hibbard, a supporter of the design.
During the campaign, Beckman argued residents had not seen the canopy in the designs when they approved the referendum that enabled Imagine Clearwater to go forward, and Bunker worried about the expense with the uncertainty over the Church of Scientology’s control of surrounding properties.
Having already been approved more than a year ago, the canopy feature was not on the agenda Thursday. But Bunker made a motion to scrap the covering entirely in order to save $6 million. Then more than a dozen business owners, residents and arts professionals, argued for why the covered venue was needed if the park project had any hope of stimulating downtown.
“I have performed in nearly every outdoor venue in the country and I can tell you for a fact that the ones that are successful are 4-to-5,000 seats undercover, the ones that are less are not,” said Mark Cantrell, president and CEO of The Florida Orchestra. “You could become a destination in the winter time for orchestras all over the world to come here and bring classical music to the people of Clearwater. There are no places in Florida currently that really exist that could do that.”
Even Hugh Coachman, whose great uncle sold the waterfront land that is now called Coachman Park to the city in 1945, has warmed to the concept. In February, Coachman met with city manager Bill Horne to express his distaste for the concert venue as well as a now rescinded idea to change the a park’s name to Coachman Commons.
But on Thursday, Coachman acknowledged that with the renaming issue now dead, the venue could help the city progress.
“At first it looked like that y’all were trying to make a Disney World West, but now it’s coming down to the fact that you want to keep Clearwater going and you want to keep the family part of it alive, so you got the best of two worlds,” Coachman said.
In the end, Bunker was persuaded, rescinding his motion to scrap the amphitheater’s canopy. He said he still has reservations that Imagine Clearwater is a “$64 million gamble”, given the uncertainty over plans for more than 100 surrounding properties acquired over the past few years by companies tied to the Church of Scientology.
“It is my deep concern that they are going to try to sabotage this project,” Bunker said of Scientology, but later explaining he “was convinced by everyone who spoke” in favor of the canopy.
Beckman made a motion to scale back the canopy to a size for 3,000 seats, in line with a city consultant’s 2019 recommendation. She also worried about the added expense given the potential $9 million loss to city from COVID-19 impacts as well as “thousands of conversations on front doorsteps,” during her campaign from residents worried about the Imagine Clearwater project.
“The numbers from the experts don’t settle up with the belief,” Beckman said. “I can’t go on just belief, I want to go on the process.”
But her motion died without any support.
Earlier in the meeting, Hibbard reiterated that he questioned the city’s former consultant’s cost projections that led to the recommendation of a covering for 3,000 seats. He said in building the boutique amphitheater, the city would be creating something marketable to pay help pay for the operation of the rest of the Imagine Clearwater park area.
To residents concerned about the amphitheater overwhelming the park with its large concerts, he said it will also be a venue for farmers markets, graduations, art festivals and other events.
“Two-thirds of this park is just greenspace,” Hibbard said. “That parkland doesn’t generate revenue. There’s only one portion of this park that can generate revenue, and that’s the portion we are talking about tonight.”