Editorial: Clearwater should move forward with waterfront concert venue

The City Council should embrace Ruth Eckerd Hall’s proposal for a 4,000 seat concert pavilion. It’s vital to get the size right to attract concerts and bring more people downtown.
Aerial of downtown waterfront in Clearwater, the site where a new concert pavilion of up to 4,000 seats could be built. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
LUIS SANTANA | Times Aerial of downtown waterfront in Clearwater, the site where a new concert pavilion of up to 4,000 seats could be built. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published April 3
Updated April 3

Nearly 18 months ago, Clearwater voters cleared the way for significant improvements to the downtown waterfront that promise to transform it into a more attractive destination. Yet the plan has stalled over the size of a concert pavilion that will be the key feature. It’s time to move forward, and the Clearwater City Council can start Thursday tonight by endorsing a concert space that has the best chance of helping make the overall project successful.

It’s understandable that council members have been torn over how to proceed. The downtown waterfront is a treasure, and for decades Clearwater voters have been protective of its green space and skeptical of virtually any plans to add attractions to it. But the question now is not whether to create a space for intimate concerts that includes permanent covered seats. That answer already is yes. The question is how many seats are required for the space to be a viable, regularly used venue that brings more people downtown and to the waterfront.

For that answer, council members should trust Ruth Eckerd Hall officials. They told council members this week at least 4,000 covered seats are needed for the venue to be successful. It would be a unique concert space for the Tampa Bay area, and Ruth Eckerd officials estimate they could bring at least 25 shows a year there. Anything less than 4,000 seats, they said, and it would be less used and programmed on a “show-by-show basis.’’ So going smaller could mean losing big in the long run.

There is a sense of urgency for the council to provide clear direction. The debate over the size of the concert venue has been going on for months and delaying the entire waterfront project. Some momentum has been lost since voters approved the 2017 referendum, and it’s time to move on to even bigger questions like finding sources for the rest of the cost of the entire waterfront project.

It’s also important to remember the bigger picture. The Imagine Clearwater plan for the city’s 66-acre waterfront is aimed at rejuvenating the entire downtown, which has faltered for decades under the shadow of the Church of Scientology, beach traffic issues and suburban development. The improvements are expected to include a new garden in what is now Coachman Park; a lake under the Memorial Causeway; shaded paths; and a gateway plaza with waterfront features and event space at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue. And yes, a concert pavilion.

To be sure, the vision for the concert space has evolved since the 2017 referendum. At the time, there were no specific designs and vague descriptions of an expanded, modern version of the outdated band shell in Coachman Park. Then came versions that featured perhaps 2,000 seats and later a fixed covering over them. Now the debate is between 3,000 and 4,000 covered seats. So it’s understandable that while three council members already favor the recommendation of 4,000 seats, Mayor George Cretekos and council member Hoyt Hamilton are uncertain.

It would not be in the public interest to build a venue that overwhelms the entire downtown Clearwater waterfront. But it also would be foolish to build a concert pavilion too small to regularly attract concerts that would bring a steady stream of visitors downtown. At the very least, council members should accept the advice from Ruth Eckerd and embrace the concept of a 4,000-seat venue. Once the design of that venue is completed and the price nailed down, council members can reconsider if it seems too much to stomach.