CLEARWATER — When considering who should manage the waterfront amphitheater being built to change the future of downtown, the City Council on Thursday stuck with its history.
A five-member city staff committee, including City Manager Jon Jennings, had recommended the Council engage OVG360 and Vinik Sports Group, the world’s largest developer of sports and entertainment facilities paired with Tampa Bay’s prominent venue operator.
Instead, the council voted 3-2 to begin negotiating with Ruth Eckerd Hall, its performing arts partner of 40 years that runs the city-owned facility on McMullen Booth Road and downtown’s Capitol Theater. Council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker voted no.
Staff favored OVG360 and Vinik Sports Group for their ability to attract major sponsors, their focus on profitability and their record of production across the nation.
Jennings, who took over city administration in November and has a background in professional sports, began the discussion defending his staff’s analysis and pushed backed against allegations he “put his thumb on the scale.” He later declined to identify who accused him of that.
But on Monday, Mayor Frank Hibbard said he was disappointed staff didn’t provide their scoring sheets on the bidders and pushed for more clarity on their rationale. On Thursday, he stressed Ruth Eckerd Hall’s experience producing outdoor concerts in Tampa Bay and commitment to community events.
“They are part of the fabric of our community,” Hibbard said. “You see them in the grocery store, at church and restaurants. If they don’t do the job right, they can’t escape us.”
Staff will now work with Ruth Eckerd Hall to negotiate terms of an operating contract, which will have to go back before the council for final approval.
The amphitheater is expected to open in July 2023 with the rest of the $84 million renovation of Coachman Park.
It was Ruth Eckerd Hall officials who, in 2018, lobbied the council to build an outdoor amphitheater in the first place. When the council approved the concept for the Imagine Clearwater park renovation in 2017, the design included only a simple, uncovered bandshell.
In 2019, after Ruth Eckerd Hall’s efforts, the council voted to amend the park’s design to replace the bandshell with a boutique amphitheater with covering for 4,000 seats and lawn seating for 5,000.
Bunker said that history has made some residents suspicious that the amphitheater “was built expressly for Ruth Eckerd Hall.” He noted that Hibbard served as a board member of the nonprofit for years before his election in 2020, which prompted Hibbard to snap at him: “Be very careful, I mean it.”
City Attorney David Margolis then confirmed Hibbard had no conflict of interest in supporting Ruth Eckerd Hall. Bunker continued that downtown “has been radioactive for close to 50 years” because of the overwhelming presence of the Church of Scientology, and that bringing outside big guns could break the stigma.
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OVG360 has opened 100 venues in North America and earned $1 billion in naming rights deals. Vinik Sports Group has a local tie with its management of Amalie Arena, Raymond James Stadium and the University of South Florida’s Yuengling Center.
“Our problem has been, we can’t get developers to take this area seriously,” Bunker said. “We need somebody to take the first step and I think OVG shows a level of confidence that ‘we’re not afraid to be here operating and neither should you.’”
But council members David Allbritton and Lina Teixeira noted Ruth Eckerd Hall’s community-based approach and experience with having already produced shows on the downtown waterfront.
In their response to the city’s solicitation, Ruth Eckerd Hall estimated it would produce 45 events at the amphitheater the first 12 months with a potential for 85 events by year five.
Besides its main operation on McMullen Booth Road, Ruth Eckerd Hall officials touted their record of programming international acts throughout Tampa Bay while maintain a community focus arts education for youth.