SOUND VISION: The budget for The Sound, a new outdoor music venue, was $31 million, which features a roof canopy resembling a stingray. (John Wells)

Waterfront venue anchors $84 million project

When people think of Clearwater, Florida, it’s typically for the Gulf town’s white sand beaches, but the coastal community has illustrious rock roots. The Rolling Stones penned “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – their first U.S. No. 1 – while staying overnight in Clearwater after their gig at Jack Russell Stadium was cut short by a riot during their first American tour in May 1965.

Now, music fans have found satisfaction of their own with the June 28 opening of The Sound, a stunning outdoor music venue overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.

The amphitheater is the centerpiece of an $84 million development project in Coachman Park, which is owned by the city and is part of the city’s downtown revitalization. The budget for the music venue was $31 million, including a huge, Florida-weather-friendly canopy that resembles a stingray. Ruth Eckerd Hall Experience, the nonprofit which operates two other venues in Clearwater, Ruth Eckerd Hall and Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, manages The Sound.

BY THE BAY: The Sound under construction in Clearwater, Florida. (Getty Images)

“The city of Clearwater has a long-standing relationship with Ruth Eckerd Hall and we are thrilled we get to continue and deepen that relationship by having them run and manage our newest concert venue at Coachman Park,” said Mayor Brian J. Aungst, Sr. “We have already hosted some successful concerts and the community is loving The Sound. The venue seats 4,000, so between the great intimate outdoor venue and the views of the water, you can’t help but have a great concert experience.”

The architect was Stantec Consulting Services, Inc. Skanska built the facility and Bird-Air constructed the canopy.

“Penny for Pinellas,” a one-cent sales tax tied to infrastructure upgrades, provided $41.5 million and an additional $30 million came from revenue bonds. The balance was covered by city’s general fund and other public sources.

“There was such an opportunity for it to be (a striking) structure,” said Susan Crockett, CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall. “This is something really special that people will associate with Clearwater.”

Coachman Park was home to a series of small bandshells during the 1900s. Annual music festivals, such as the four-day Clearwater Jazz Holiday and Clearwater Sea-Blues Festival, attracted large crowds for decades. But residents were concerned the large-scale project would have negatively affect the waterfront.

“When the city decided they were going to invest in the space, they needed to go to the citizens of Clearwater to vote and go to referendum, because that is waterfront city property and is tightly protected,” Crockett explained. “People were worried it was going to turn their waterfront — this beautiful thing would become this ugly structure and it was going to take away from it. If anything, it highlights the whole location.”

The complex includes green space, a vendor plaza for food trucks, splash pads and playgrounds and offers the flexibility for The Sound to expand for larger events up to 9,000 capacity with lawn seating. Having a scalable venue was part of an overall strategy to attract concert tours too big to play Ruth Eckerd Hall, which has a capacity of 2,000, or the Capitol Theatre, which seats 750. The MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa holds 20,000.

The Sound “hits that midsize niche for acts that aren’t big enough to go to the amphitheater in Tampa and shows that we would need to book for three nights at Ruth Eckerd Hall that really belong in a venue more like this,” Crockett explained. “We knew there was a fit for this and could (book events) we didn’t have in the area.”

Ruth Eckerd Hall staff handle hospitality at The Sound, which is a combination of in-house beverage and local food vendors that support small and minority-owned businesses. Booking is also done in-house. Crockett said their potential audience is willing to travel from Orlando, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Bradenton. Tampa is a 15-minute commute over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Ferries transport tourists from beach hotels to the venue.

“It opens a slew of musical doors of who we can serve,” Crockett said.

The philosophy is to develop relationships with artists as they move up through the various venues operated by Ruth Eckerd Hall Experience as they build an audience in the market.

“It’s a cycle,” Crockett said. “You get the artist at different places and build those relationships. We are independent. A lot of our competition and co-promoters are the same. We don’t have the power or the draw of Live Nation or AEG so it makes it more important that we have these good relationships, as well as with AEG and Live Nation.”

The Sound is courting community support, too. Situated in a residential area meant positioning the stage to have  a minimal amount of sound intrusion.

“There are high-rise condos all around it,” Crockett said. “The way they tweaked it was actually phenomenal where it was placed, how it was designed and how it is working. The canopy encloses it and the acoustics sound wonderful, but if you are two blocks away, you barely hear it.”

With a pristine waterfront location, the impact on the environment was another concern. The Sound partnered with Ocean Allies, a local environmental organization to ensure “that what should not get in the water does not get in the water,” Crockett said.  “There are no balloons. No strings. No plastic straws. There is a real sensitivity with that.”

The Sound is conscientious about lighting during turtle nesting season. They offer no single use plastic, Styrofoam containers or plastic bags and utilize local growers and wineries. “It isn’t as hard as you think,” Crockett said. “It makes good sense.”

The potential business growth and impact on the community is significant, but so is building awareness of Clearwater as a live music destination. “We are drawing attention to Clearwater’s long history for live music,” Crockett said. “We are live music and this is going to be a big piece of that. We are going to distinguish what Clearwater has to offer beyond beautiful beaches.”