Zev Buffman wants to bring Margaritaville to Coachman Park.
"Let's just dream," he said, "but Jimmy Buffett is a partner and friend of mine from years ago. Jimmy would rather do, when he can, two shows, back to back, with 5,000-plus (fans) on a lawn than what Live Nation now has in Tampa at the fairgrounds."
Considering Buffett's likely to sell out Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre this June, that may or may not be true — as Buffman said, it's a dream. But it could happen if the city embraces Ruth Eckerd Hall's vision for a new outdoor amphitheater in Coachman Park.
The amphitheater is the splashiest aspect of a 10-year, potentially $55 million proposal to renovate downtown Clearwater's waterfront that was approved by the City Council in February. Larger than 2,100-seat Ruth Eckerd Hall, but smaller than the 20,000-seat MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, the venue would be part of an industry trend toward the "boutique amphitheater," said Bobby Rossi, Ruth Eckerd Hall's executive vice president for entertainment.
They're all the rage.
In May, the Jacksonville Jaguars and city of Jacksonville will open the 5,500-seat Daily's Place, part of a $90 million renovation of EverBank Field. It will join the $1.5 million, 10,000-capacity Orlando Amphitheater, which opened last spring at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, and older venues in Miami and St. Augustine to form a circuit of smaller pavilions in Florida. Nationwide, like-sized venues are opening everywhere from Nashville to Coney Island to Montana, often with the backing of major promoters like Live Nation or AEG Presents.
A venue of that size would offer a new option for not only A-list acts like Buffett, but midsize tweener acts who might otherwise skip this market — think John Mellencamp, Weezer or Slayer, all of whom are playing midsize amphitheaters elsewhere in Florida this summer. It's a "very desirable size configuration," Rossi said, that could turn Coachman Park into "one of the premiere outdoor venues in the country."
"It's common knowledge that the Tampa Bay area has kind of been lacking a venue like this for a long, long time, and I think it's long overdue," said John Valentino, senior vice president of promoter AEG Presents, a frequent Ruth Eckerd Hall partner. "I think it would play very well, and I certainly like the location on the water."
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Before any of this can happen, the city has to align its vision with Ruth Eckerd Hall's.
Last summer, as New York consultants HR&A Advisors prepared a study for the city's "Imagine Clearwater" waterfront development project, Ruth Eckerd Hall jumped in with its own renderings for an $8 million permanent pavilion to better service signature events like the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. At the time, Buffman said it could save $150,000 in annual costs and upgrades.
HR&A's initial draft in November emphasized greenspace, playgrounds and garden areas. A revised proposal Feb. 21 included new renderings of a "bandshell modified to accommodate large-scale events," constructed on what is now the parking lot west of the Harborview Center. It would be reoriented on a footprint that could accommodate both midsize ticketed events and larger festival crowds of up 18,000. In some ways, HR&A's vision for the bandshell was even grander than Buffman's.
"We did not know that they would find that this is better, but we worked with them," Buffman said. "Because there is room for 18,000 people there. Occasionally we may need it."
Parks and recreation manager Kevin Dunbar called the HR&A proposal a "template" that left a lot of wiggle room. He said he agrees with Ruth Eckerd Hall on the need for covered permanent seating and better back-of-house and technical infrastructure. But a specific cost and timeline are still very much in the air.
This spring, the city and Ruth Eckerd Hall will present three concerts on a temporary stage in Coachman Park: Kenny G on April 21, John Legend on May 13 and Third Eye Blind on June 10, each capped at 3,000 to 5,000 tickets. What the city learns from those shows — and how the community responds — will go a long way toward informing a design.
Until then, Dunbar said, it's tough to estimate cost, and therefore funding — although he did say the $5 million in "Penny for Pinellas" funds allocated for Coachman Park in the city's 2019 budget is "not going to be enough money, not even to build this quadrant of the park." He suggested the city could divert further general funds for an amphitheater, or look to state or federal sources. And he wouldn't rule out selling naming rights.
"There's a lot of different pots," he said. "You've got to figure out what the ask is first."
One roadblock to construction: The Florida Legislature must amend a 90-year-old act prohibiting concert-like activity in the waterfront area proposed by HR&A for the venue. The proposal, and the city's subsequent decision to more forward, didn't come through in time for consideration in this year's legislative session, which means it'll have to wait until 2018.
After that, Dunbar said, the amphitheater will be a priority in any plan the city adopts.
"We've still got a pretty aggressive schedule of events we're doing that we're going to need to continue to do," Dunbar said, "so you're probably going to need to build this new facility first."
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So let's say all this happens. How would a new amphitheater impact the Tampa Bay music landscape?
Dunbar expects the park could host live concerts, festivals and events up to 60 nights of any given year — for comparison's sake, in 2016 the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre hosted around 35. In terms of talent, Rossi and Buffman said, the sky's the limit — Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie were all names they tossed out.
"Is it multiple nights with a Paul Simon?" Rossi said. "We'll fight as hard as we can to sell this environment, as opposed to where they might have traditionally played."
The atmosphere of a smaller outdoor venue is an underrated selling point not just for fans, but for artists, said Shawn Krauel, president and CEO of the Central Florida Fair, which operates the year-old Orlando Amphitheater.
"I see shows that go to MidFlorida and other places, and I look at them and go, Man, that show would be so much better here," he said. "If you want to put a blanket down, you do, but you're not 1,200 feet from the stage, you're only 200 feet from the stage. That's the intimacy."
Valentino, of AEG Presents, said national tours that are "designed and packaged for a venue this size" will now take a longer look at Florida's growing slate of such spaces. "I think it will bring more shows to the market, and certainly open up opportunities for us."
The same could be said for sleepy downtown Clearwater. Last spring, the city and Ruth Eckerd Hall threw a concert in Coachman Park by Bryan Adams, in part to gauge the community's interest for shows like this. More than 5,000 fans turned out. Adams apparently loved it: "He was the first one to ask to come back," Rossi said. And Dunbar, who was out of town that night, said the city felt an immediate impact.
"They called me to look to have the curfew on playing music downtown increased beyond 11 o'clock," he said. "Because about a third of the people went up on Cleveland Street, and were looking for something else to do. They were all jazzed up after listening to Bryan Adams for two hours, and they wanted their evening to go on."
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.