Clearwater City Council Votes $2.4 Million To Purchase Historic Theater
by Anne McKay Garris
As far back as 1999, Clear-water Architect Steve Fowler provided a plan for the renovation of the historic theater at 405 Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater. The detailed plans included the use of the building next door, popularly known as the Lokey Building. The plan envisioned seating for 655, an expanded lobby area, an improved (but not enlarged) stage with motorized orchestra lift, dressing rooms and offices among other usual amenities.
The theater, opened in 1921 as the Capitol Theater and since renamed the Royalty Theater, was seen as another catalyst to redevelop downtown Clearwater as well as a venue for a variety of performances not likely to fill the much larger Ruth Eckerd Hall theater in East Clearwater.
An incomplete list of these performances includes the Florida West Ballet, Pinellas Opera League, Stage Agenda For Youth, the Suncoast Dixieland Jazz Society, and the Gilbert & Sullivan Players in addition to a variety of performances by young people of the community.
Just recently the possibility of foreclosure of a mortgage on the theater property has prompted city officials to decide to move forward with the purchase of the two properties as quickly as possible. Working with the board of the extremely successful Ruth Eckerd Hall, the city officials have developed an agreement which would call for the City to purchase both properties for a total of $2.41 million and Ruth Eckerd Hall to provide the operation and leadership.
Last week, the plans came to fruition as staff recommended immediate purchase of the property and the signing of the agreement which would commit the City to the cost of purchase and $250,000 for intermediate remodeling of the theater. Ruth Eckerd Hall has pledged to then have a two-year fundraising drive to bring $8 million to the table for extensive remodeling and operation. When this is done, the City will contribute another $3 million to the remodeling.
Meantime, in the two-year fundraising period, Ruth Eckerd Hall will be responsible for programming which would have the theater use begin very quickly, but would begin to promote interest in the theater both from the audience and the performing arts organizations point of view.
Buoyed up by over 50 e-mails expressing great enthusiasm for the project, in spite of the current downturn in the economy and the reduction of city services, the Council undertook to locate the initial $2.4 million purchase price among the varied city funds.
There is a Downtown Dev-elo-ment Fund which cannot be spent anywhere except in Downtown. There is also the "unappropriated retained earnings" of the Special Develop-ment Fund. This is where they keep the interest from money placed in savings accounts until needed. Enough of this is from the city's General Fund to make it eligible to be used for current expenses, such as library and recreation salaries. The Council, however, has a policy against using the fund for other than capital projects.
Council Member Paul Gibson, in his initial comments about funding the purchase of the theater, described it as a good place for Penny For Pinellas sales tax money. "It is one of the few places," he said, "where we can spend Penny money without incurring related General Fund expenses of salaries and maintenance." Under the proposed agreement, Ruth Eckerd Hall will provide all staffing and routine maintenance.
The other Council Members seemed to agree but there was one hitch. The closing on the theater property had been set for mid December, and changes to the proposed use of Penny funds require a public hearing. As often happens with money-spending actions of the city council, there was no time left for a public hearing. There was mention, however, that Penny funds might be approved at a December public hearing and used to refund the $2.4 million to the Special Development Fund.
As the Council contemplated their decision, members of the public lined up to comment. One lone Clearwater citizen suggested that the money could, and should, be spent for salaries and maintenance of libraries and recreation centers which were used by a large number of Clearwater citizens, many of whom had neither the money, nor the inclination to attend the theater.
Other speakers, from Palm Harbor, Dunedin, Seminole, and Crystal Beach, with three more from Clearwater, sang the praises of Ruth Eckerd Hall, Downtown Clearwater, the beneficial effect of the performing arts on both society and the economy. They were mostly members of the board of Ruth Eckerd Hall or members of arts societies in the area.
Swept up on the tide of approval from e-mail and citizens, the Council members "donned their rose colored glasses" as one Council member put it, and voted to take the $2.4 million from the retained earnings account to purchase both the theater and the Lokey property.
In all the documentation, and all the discussion at the City Council meeting, no one said the word, "Parking."
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