CLEARWATER — There is already one white elephant that has made its mark on downtown.
In 1994, the city bought the former Maas Brothers department store on a prime corner overlooking Clearwater Bay and turned it into a convention center for trade shows and events. The awkward configuration of the Harborview Center kept it from ever being a success, and the city was unable to afford operations.
It closed in 2009 and ever since has been declared a failure, even after the Clearwater Marine Aquarium began using it in 2011 to display props and exhibits from its Dolphin Tale films.
With the lesson from Harborview Center in mind, the city has vowed not to allow its roughly $50 million Imagine Clearwater waterfront redevelopment project to become another regret.
City staff are now developing a work order for engineers to finish designing most aspects of Imagine Clearwater, but the City Council directed staff to hold back one key centerpiece: the concert band shell.
Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said the city will now conduct an economic impact study to determine the sustainability of different versions of a concert facility that would host 25 to 40 shows a year reflecting different orientations of covered seating, back of house facilities and other aspects. That study could take 30 to 60 days, he said.
The design now calls for a simple band shell, “pretty much identical to the one you currently have” in Coachman Park, said Stantec project manager Kyle Steele. Engineers originally included a covering in the design for about 2,000 seats, but Maxwell said he directed consultants to remove the piece because it wasn’t consistent with the master plan of having green space primarily for recreation and secondarily for entertainment.
After Ruth Eckerd Hall President Zev Buffman warned the city was making a huge mistake by not building the band shell with covering for at least 4,000 seats to protect from rain and sun, neighborhood groups rallied against making the facility a large amphitheater, saying it would take away from green space.
But after a joint meeting between Buffman, Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition President Karen Cunningham and Downtown Neighborhood Association acting president David Lillesand on Sept. 28 “we discovered that there are substantial areas of agreement, as well as some significant misunderstandings of our respective positions on both sides,” Lillesand wrote in an email to Maxwell.
After leading Ruth Eckerd for seven years, Buffman announced his retirement last week. Ruth Eckerd Vice Chair Frank Hibbard, also former Clearwater mayor, said the bandshell debate was “unequivocally” not a factor in Buffman’s announcement.
Ruth Eckerd Hall executive vice president Bobby Rossi said he predicts the organization could book events at the bandshell facility roughly 30 days a year, leaving the park open for recreation space and other city events 90 percent of the calendar year. But the facility must have the proper canopy covering and back of house infrastructure to be a successful mid-sized outdoor venue that does not exist today in the Tampa Bay market.
“We want to suggest just a small tweak that could produce a life-long, monumental, iconic destination boutique pavilion,” Rossi said.
Hibbard cautioned the city to slow down to get this “enormous project” right. He said a successful Imagine Clearwater would have to produce revenues to sustain itself, and a well-done entertainment venue could do just that.
“We’ve talked to experts, there are people that are interested throughout the Tampa Bay area in having an outdoor venue that isn’t overlooking I-4, that is overlooking this picturesque, beautiful downtown harbor that we have in Clearwater,” Hibbard said. “It can be a catalyst, you can have the other components of the park but make sure we do the entertainment venue properly.”
Council members weighed the urgency felt to get Imagine Clearwater moving and show the public progress is being made with getting the bandshell design right. Stantec consultants predicted demolition work on the Harborview Center could begin in February, clearing away one of the city’s biggest eyesores and preparing the corner at Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street for Imagine Clearwater’s civic gateway.
Unanimously, they agreed rushing the band shell and building something that would disappoint is a risk they shouldn’t take.
“For us not to capture that potential ultimately I think is going to be a mistake,” Council member Hoyt Hamilton said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.