CLEARWATER — City Council members altered the plans for the redevelopment of Coachman Park on June 18 in a pair of decisions that they say is more cost effective and functional.
They started by literally cutting nearly $5 million off the top of the $64 million Imagine Clearwater price tag by eliminating the extensive rooftop renovations of the Main Library, and they finished by moving the proposed amphitheater to the north end of the park facing the back of the library.
Mayor Frank Hibbard led the charge to move the 4,000-seat covered performance venue from the center of the property in an effort to improve the flow of the park by separating the amphitheater from amenities such as the playground and garden areas.
The 4-1 vote to make the move was met with praise from local entertainment and community leaders, including Hugh Coachman, whose great-uncle sold the property to the city in 1945.
“My main thing was that I wanted it to be a park and a park for families and it can’t be anything else but a park,” said Coachman, who had expressed concerns about the project. “But for families, you’ve got the best of two things. You’re going to have a place that people are going to want to come listen to music — or what these kids call music nowadays — and they're going to have places for the families to come.”
Coachman was also strongly opposed to the city renaming the park Coachman Commons, but Hibbard and the council also nixed that plan during a special work session June 16 when they decided the name would rename Coachman Park.
Keeping the canopy
Not everyone agreed with all of the aspects of the plan, however.
Council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker, who were elected in March, objected to the size and cost of the amphitheater.
“I’m concerned because it does seem like a $64 million-plus gamble,” Bunker said, citing the growing presence of the Church of Scientology in the area. “We don’t know that this is going to succeed. I hope it does. It’s beautiful. I love the design of it. … I can see this being an asset for the city down the road. But I am very concerned about it being that economic driver that we’re hoping it will be.”
Bunker said the quickest and easiest way to save money was to eliminate the canopy for the amphitheater, which would save the city about $6.2 million.
Hibbard and numerous members of the local entertainment industry said that would be a mistake.
Mark Cantrell, president and CEO of the Florida Orchestra, said he’s performed in outdoor venues all over the country as a former musician with the Boston Pops and Symphony Orchestra and the ones that are successful are those with 4,000-5,000 seats under cover.
“I think you’re headed for a disaster if you do not have the roof or if you go smaller under coverage,” he said.
He added he would love to call the amphitheater the new outdoor home of the Florida Orchestra, but it would require the canopy. And his orchestra wouldn’t be the only one interested.
“You could become a destination in the winter time for orchestras from all over the world to come here and bring classical music to the people of Clearwater,” he said. “There are no places in Florida currently that really exist that could do that. This could be a destination.”
Hibbard pointed out that concert promoters from Ruth Eckerd Hall, Live Nation and AEG all said 4,000 seats was the magic number. But he added that concerts were just some of the opportunities that a canopy could provide.
“I think you need to look beyond just the concerts. I think you need to look at art shows. I think you need to look at farmers markets. I think you need to look at events for sports tourism. I think you need to look at food festivals,” he said, citing events like the Taste of Clearwater.
After listening to numerous residents and business owners implore the council to keep the canopy, Bunker said he was convinced, but still concerned about the cost when the city was bracing for a budget hit from COVID-19.
Taking a step back
Beckman, too, shared those concerns and highlighted a January report by Webb Management, which performs research and planning for concert halls and other entertainment venues. The consultant’s conclusion stated that the amphitheater would be running at an annual deficit of roughly $2 million.
She added that many residents agreed with her that the current plan has exceeded the scope of what the voters had approved.
“When I voted for Imagine Clearwater, and I did vote for this, it was not clear to me in that referendum language that it would be a 4,000-seat covered world class venue,” she said.
She made a motion, which was seconded by Bunker, to scale down the size of the amphitheater to no more than 3,000 covered seats.
The motion failed, though, because Council members Hoyt Hamilton and David Allbritton joined Hibbard in sharing skepticism of Webb Management’s findings and supporting the current size of the venue.
Hibbard said scaling down the amphitheater didn’t make sense because they need it to make money in a park that will require a lot of it for maintenance.
“We have libraries. They don’t pay for themselves. We have recreation centers. They don’t pay for themselves,” he said. “Two-thirds of this park is just green space. It’s going to have a cost to maintain of about $800,000 a year. That parkland doesn’t generate revenue. There’s only one portion of this park that can generate revenue. And that’s the portion we’re talking about tonight.”
He added that licensing naming rights of the venue could be another source of revenue.
After all the arguments had been made, the council voted 4-1, with Beckman in opposition, to move the covered amphitheater to the north end of the park.
There was no debate about the decision to scale back the rooftop renovations of the library.
Those changes were to include enclosing the existing 3,000-square-foot roof area and adding an additional 3,000-square-foot area, which would have restrooms and storage areas.
Assistant City Manager Michael Delk said the elimination of the level 5 addition, which was requested by Hibbard, would result in an estimated reduction of $4.96 million to the Main Library project, bringing down the cost to $3.84 million.
Instead the council urged staff to move forward with only repairs and to leave it as an open-air space.
The rest of the library project includes moving the library entrance to the southwest corner to integrate with the Imagine Clearwater Bluff Walk; adding a staircase from the first to the third levels; relocating the gallery to a new enclosed space at the southeast corner of the building; and adding collaboration and meeting space.
“I am glad that we’re spending money to really make the library into something that the public will really, really use on the trail,” Allbritton said. “And the money that was going to the roof was always kind of questionable to me. So that $5 million I know can be put to a better use on other amenities in the park that would be good for the citizens of Clearwater.”
If Hamilton has his way, though, this won’t be the last discussion about the library.
“I think this building could be a great City Hall and we could build a new city library somewhere else,” he said June 16.
Hibbard said they would have that discussion another day.