Coachman Park aerial

Plans continue to be finalized to transform one of Clearwater’s most underutilized assets – Coachman Park.

CLEARWATER — Citizens opposed to a 4,000-seat fixed-roof amphitheater have requested a financial accounting of past performances held in Coachman Park, the site where the new entertainment venue is to be built.

After months of back and forth on the number of seats, the kind of roof to use, and whether it was wise to build yet another municipal stage in central Florida, the City Council gave the go-ahead to the project at its April 4 regular meeting. The state-of-the art pavilion is considered the lynchpin to the latest plan to revitalize downtown Clearwater.

In the hour before the unanimous council vote approving the project, members of the public came to the podium to voice their support – and opposition – to the project.

Dan Shouvlin, co-owner of Clear Sky on Cleveland Restaurant, called the multimillion-dollar entertainment venue amphitheater a “generational plan” that would provide benefits such as increased hotel bookings that would “trickle-down” throughout the city’s economy.

Others, including members of neighborhood associations who helped shape the original plan for Coachman Park, said they felt betrayed by the council’s decision to pursue an entertainment venue with all the trimmings. As late as August the plan was for simply improving the existing, uncovered band shell in the green space below downtown.

Citizen activist Anne Garris said she supported Imagine Clearwater when it called for gardens, walking paths, water features and natural landscaping for escaping the city’s urban center.

“The people voted,” Garris said. “We wanted a natural park.”

Elizabeth Drayer, who said she was in a “stakeholder group” that helped develop Imagine Clearwater, told the Beacon that the amphitheater doesn’t fit the community’s original vision of Coachman Park.

“I understand the need to inject life into downtown, and want local businesses (and the city) to make money,” Drayer said. “However, I think this project is totally wrong, and not what we were sold with Imagine Clearwater. Now the council’s looking at a 3,000-plus-seat amphitheater, retractable roofs, Astroturf and big screens, so peons who can’t afford seats can see the action. Parks are where we go to get away from the screens,” Drayer said.

Clearwater Mayor George N. Cretekos said the council moved to a larger, covered amphitheater after listening to citizen input and weighing the advice of such consultants as Webb Management Services and Stantec. He said the community’s input will continue to be a driver behind the evolving Imagine Clearwater plan.

Karen Cunningham, president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition, Inc., also asked the council to perform an independent forensic audit of “revenue and all costs” of Coachman Park concerts dating to April 2017. The coalition, made up of homeowner associations in the Clearwater area, believes the city has not accurately measured the true costs such events pose to taxpayers. Therefore, the city doesn’t know what kind of venue to build, she said.

“It is our belief that the council needs to thoroughly investigate the profit/loss of these activities, including salaries and expenses of contributing city departments beyond Parks and Recreation (such as police),” Cunningham wrote in an email to the Beacon on April 1. “The council should review and report such data to the public prior to proposing an expanded amphitheater, which could potentially become a major tax burden.”

The request, which Cunningham said the coalition adopted unanimously at its April 1 meeting, asks for forensic audits of the following 2017 shows: the Kenny G. performance from April 23; the John Legend concert on May 17; Third Eye Blind concert of June 10; and Sammy Hagar on Dec. 14. The 2018 concerts the coalition wants audited include the George Clinton concert of May 5; John Fogerty and ZZ Top on June 2; and the April 28 Beach to Bay concert.

The coalition wants the city to establish standard reporting procedures for future city concerts, Cunningham wrote in her email to the Beacon. The coalition repeated its request before the council April 4.

City Manager Bill Horne doesn’t like the idea of a forensic audit, which differs from typical financial audits. Used to determine fraud or other financial malfeasance, a forensic accountant’s report must meet the standards of presentation before a court of law. Cunningham told the Beacon she does not suspect fraud.

“We are in the process of making it easier to explain the financial management and answer questions related to city-produced concerts held in Coachman Park,” Horne told the Beacon. “I believe that a forensic audit is not needed and a waste of resources right now. However, if the council directs it I will do it. I don’t agree with the CNC on this one issue.”

Councilmember Robert Cundiff doesn’t see the council agreeing to such an audit.

“I don’t think there has been a push from the council to do that,” Cundiff said of a forensic audit, “especially considering the cost of an external auditor.”

The City Council’s April 4 vote gave direction to Stantec and its subcontractors to begin designing an “iconic” pavilion with a sweeping, static roof. Daryl LeBlanc, the Stantec architect hired to design the new structure, told city managers last week that the stage, back of the house, seating and dramatic, sweeping, retractable roof could cost as much as $17.9 million.

By choosing a static roof, the city theoretically saved $600,000 to $1.5 million, according to LeBlanc’s estimates.

Like councilmembers David Allbritton, Hoyt Hamilton, and Jay Polglaze, Cundiff sees the sweeping design and combination of amphitheater chairs and lawn seating for 15,000 vital to the re-creation, or revitalization of downtown Clearwater. The ambitious Imagine Clearwater plan, of which the amphitheater is a key part, is beginning to show visible progress. The demolition of the large Harborview Center on the brow of the hill at the edge of the downtown business district is creating an uninterrupted view into Coachman Park. Other big buildings are scheduled to come down, including City Hall itself.

Many thought the debate over the number of covered seats had been settled at 3,000 weeks ago, but some councilmembers and Ruth Eckerd Hall executives urged the city to have at least 4,000 seats under the sweeping roof. When Polglaze suggested reducing the width of the seats, it allowed 4,000 seats to fit in the same footprint.

Almost everything else about the amphitheater and the park – including cost, design, and the rest – has yet to be finalized. So don’t be surprised if the number of seats under the roof changes again.