CLEARWATER — Ruth Eckerd Hall President and CEO Zev Buffman said the city’s $50 million Imagine Clearwater waterfront redevelopment project has blown a chance to fill a gaping void in the Tampa Bay market.
There is no boutique, outdoor amphitheater here like in St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Orlando or Dallas, where 5,000 to 10,000 fans, most under an awning, can watch top acts while protected from sun and rain.
But instead of building a modern pavilion, the city’s latest version of early design plans shown publicly this week call for a roughly $3 million band shell with no overhang to cover patrons, similar to the existing structure in Coachman Park.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Buffman said without the key awning feature covering at least 4,000 seats, the bandshell is "a waste of time and money" and a "nonstarter," enough to make him pledge to no longer book Ruth Eckerd’s signature concerts in the unfeasible waterfront venue.
"What they are building is a bandshell, an old fashioned facility from 40 to 50 years ago when people used to sit around and listen to nice gentle music. Those days are gone," Buffman said. "We’re really signing a death warrant on what could be. If it’s not done right, it will never happen again, and it will happen in St. Petersburg instead."
Imagine Clearwater’s early design, which overhauls 66 acres west of downtown, still requires approval from the City Council in October. But Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said the spirit of the master plan, created through consultants’ studies and citizen town halls starting in 2016, never intended to put a boutique amphitheater in the redesigned Coachman Park.
The vision, Maxwell said, has always been for "more open space than event space."
But a hitch looming over any iteration of the bandshell and Imagine Clearwater is money. In 2016, Buffman released a design for a covered pavilion he says could be built for $8 million to $12 million, at least $5 million more than the current plan.
And of Imagine Clearwater’s rough $50 million estimate, only $5.5 million is in hand, with $8 million in Penny for Pinellas one-cent sales tax revenue earmarked in 2019.
Consultants recommended a nonprofit be formed to raise money for construction and operations, but that has not even been started.
Mayor George Cretekos said the city may have to look toward bonding to pay for the municipal project.
"We’re going to do what we think is best for the best interests of the citizens of Clearwater and if (Buffman) doesn’t like that he can give us some money instead of asking us for money," said Cretekos.
The city this year gave Ruth Eckerd $3 million toward a $21 million renovation of the performing arts center on McMullen-Booth Road on top of $420,000 it gives annually for maintenance on the city-owned facility.
Over the past decade, boutique outdoor amphitheaters have become more attractive to top touring artists who prefer to play back-to-back nights to crowds of 5,000 to 10,000, but require ample seating under a covering to protect against rain and sun, said John Valentino, senior vice president of AEG Presents, a worldwide entertainment company.
The only covered outdoor amphitheater in Tampa Bay is the 20,000 capacity MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre at the Tampa Fairgrounds, which is too big for mid-sized acts and not ideal for headliners who’d rather play smaller shows over two nights.
The $11 million Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion opened in 2014, with 3,000 seats of the 10,000 capacity under a cover. All of the 5,000 seats in the Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island Boardwalk built in 2016 are under an outdoor cover.
"Tampa Bay doesn’t have anything comparable to that right now," Valentino said. "I certainly think (the market) would support something like that."
Imagine Clearwater calls for putting the band shell in a new 4-acre green, just south of the current Coachman Park. The latest band shell design has improved event staging infrastructure but nixed back-of-house logistics for bands originally proposed.
Coachman Park will be converted into a garden with a water feature, playground, canopy walk and other amenities such as permanent restrooms.
The new green will be able to hold 18,000 people, 5,000 more than the lawn at Coachman Park now accommodates. But without a covering on the band shell for at least 4,000 seats, Buffman said the city shouldn’t bother building it at all.
Along with booking acts for the annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday, Ruth Eckerd brings four to five concerts to Coachman Park every year, most recently John Legend, John Fogerty, ZZ Top and Kenny G.
But Buffman said a pavilion without a covering is a dealbreaker for other artists like Bruno Mars and Jimmy Buffett — or ambitious collaborations like an outdoor series he is planning with the Florida Orchestra. The threat of rain for patrons, and the risk for performers, is an expensive gamble Buffman said he’s no longer willing to make.
"It’s an illusion, it’s unstable," Buffman said of the city’s plan. "It is not feasible for us to risk putting shows at Coachman Park anymore."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.