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Neighbors Wary As Amphitheater Debuts

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TAMPA - The $23 million Ford Amphitheatre, which presents its inaugural concert tonight, is all about an outdoor sound.

That's what bothers the neighbors.

For 37 years, Janice Davis has lived on Wallis Place, her house within earshot of the Florida State Fairgrounds and the area's latest concert venue. Many of the amphitheater's coming acts - such as Sting and Kiss - are expected to draw 20,000 people.

``We already get noise from the fairgrounds, and now we have the amphitheater,'' Davis said. ``I should be able to live in my house without the noise. But now it's after the fact, because it's already built.''

Amphitheater officials say they had no intention of building an ear-sore and designed the venue to limit noise off its 17-acre site. Sound-savvy features include a 40-foot earthen berm to absorb sound, and a stage and speakers facing Interstate 4. The building also is tucked on the northeast quarter of the fairgrounds, bordering the freeway.

First Big Test

But neighbors southwest of the fairgrounds say they can hear music from weekend outdoor bands at the Hard Rock Cafe on the opposite side of the interstate.

``It doesn't matter how far away the amphitheater is because sound travels,'' Davis said. ``My house is like an open shot to the fairgrounds.''

The first big test is tonight, when Christian singer Michael W. Smith hits the stage at 7:30. The Cure performs Sunday; a concert Tuesday features Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire; and the Dave Matthews Band plays Thursday.

Wall-of-sound groups down the road include Rush, Boston and Black Sabbath. All bands bring their own speaker systems, augmented by eight fixed speakers on the outer edge of the amphitheater canopy.

Officials at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center say that the amphitheater schedule doesn't conflict or detract from their seasons and that the entertainment dollar is strong enough to support another venue.

However, some future amphitheater acts could just as easily play the St. Pete Times Forum, said Holly Brown, a spokeswoman for the Forum.

``There are shows that could go either way,'' she said. ``Anytime a new venue opens in a market, there's concern about discretionary income and what the market will support. So there's a little concern.''

Billie Morales would rather see rock bands play the forum than her back yard: Her Downing Circle home sits about a hundred feet from the south property line of the fairgrounds.

``The thing is so huge, and I know we're going to hear concerts,'' Morales said. ``We're afraid we will hear the bass because that's what goes through every room in the house.''

Careful Planning

Amphitheater planners say careful thought went into sound projection and reflection. The lack of reflective surfaces means sound travels beyond the fixed seats. But they say the massive sloped berm, made of 350,000 cubic yards of soil, absorbs that sound as well as traffic noise from the north.

``Sound waves not only are absorbed by the berm, but the 10,000 people sitting on it,'' said John M. Ahrens, architectural manager. ``The majority of the sound will never leave the property.''

Containing that sound to the site was important because the project's success hinges on its acceptance by the community, said Ed Morrell, the amphitheater's executive director.

``We spent a great deal of time researching this issue, and this determined the position of the stage, where it faces, the way the berm is sloped, and the slope of the house,'' Morrell said. ``Everything we did says we will fall well within Hillsborough County ordinances.''

A key to staying within acceptable noise levels is how much noise already exists at the site, he said: ``Our research shows that by the time sound leaves us, it won't be much higher than the ambient noise from the highway.''

Each day, more than 80,000 vehicles pass the fairgrounds along I-4, and traffic noise background levels average 60 decibels, the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission said. Any source of noise in or near a residential area must comply with a limit of 55 decibels between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Amphitheater officials provided the commission a detailed list of plans and modeling to show how the venue would comply with noise regulations, said Sterling Woodard, assistant director of the commission's air management division.

``We reviewed their models and compared them to our calculations,'' he said, ``and we had no objections.''

Other Measures

If noise becomes a problem, Clear Channel Entertainment, which owns the amphitheater, could be forced to build more berms or add sound-absorbing walls. That noise would have to be louder than the neighboring freeway traffic.

``The background levels of the interstate are above 60 decibels anyway,'' Woodard said. ``So as long as the projected impact of sound isn't above that, it isn't a problem.''

If some neighbors to the fairgrounds worry about the possible sound level, one resident has concerns about the traffic. Richard Dakin lives near Orient Road, which intersects a back entrance to the amphitheater. Although U.S. 301 is the main entrance, officials say some traffic will flow through the Orient entrance.

``There's going to be gridlock for families trying to get home at night,'' Dakin said.

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