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Ruth Eckerd Hall grant raises questions from council member about Clearwater spending

By Tracey McManus
The Clearwater City Council voted to give $3 million toward Ruth Eckerd Hall's $21 million renovation. Photo courtesy of Ruth Eckerd Hall

CLEARWATER ó Although Ruth Eckerd Hall has future maintenance needs its leaders are still working to fund, the nonprofit has secured the dollars needed to break ground on the final phase of the $21 million renovation of its facility on McMullen-Booth Road.

The gap was closed last week when the City Council voted 4-1 to contribute $3 million to the Expanding the Experience project, with Council member Bill Jonson in opposition.

The grant raised questions about spending at a time when city coffers are pressed for other infrastructure projects, downtown investments and uncertainty over whether Florida voters will approve an additional $25,000 homestead exemption in November, which could cost the city at least $1.5 million in property tax revenue in 2020, according to county estimates.

City officials have also not figured out how to pay for most of the voter-enabled $55 million Imagine Clearwater plan to reshape the downtown waterfront. Only $500,000 of general funds and $5 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax funding has been dedicated to it so far.

"Iím trying to understand why at this late time weíre accepting this request that will divert money from our No. 1 priority, a priority that is not fully funded," Jonson said.

Jonson, who will leave office this month because of term limits, also cast the lone vote in December against giving $5 million to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for its facility expansion.

City Council member Bob Cundiff called the Ruth Eckerd grant "a good move" because itís an immediate need, while Imagine Clearwater will be rolled out in phases over at least four years. City Council member Hoyt Hamilton suggested the waterfront project could be a candidate for Pinellas County Tourist Development Council bed tax funding, which is allocated to capital projects that have countywide impact.

City Council member Doreen Caudell emphasized the city owns the Ruth Eckerd Hall building and is maintaining its investment with the grant.

The Expanding the Experience project broke ground in 2015 with a renovation of the Murray Theatre, including a new ticket office, lobby and bar, and lighting and sound improvements. The nonprofit has made upgrades to the Margarete Heye Great Room with new paint, carpets, seating improvements and a new kitchen and a new HVAC system throughout the building.

Ruth Eckerd is currently updating the landscaping and lighting the 40-acre arrival area and parking lots, with a new configuration of the main lobby and entrance to improve traffic patterns. The interior phase will expand the west lobby to six times the current size for a new Cabaret Theatre stage and dining area. The 34-year-old orchestra shell will also be re-engineered to accommodate the acoustics for the Florida Orchestra.

Ruth Eckerd Vice Chair Frank Hibbard said the nonprofitís fundraising work is by no means complete. He said there are at least $5.5 million in maintenance needs to bring the facility to "state of the art standards" for things like freight elevators and "down to that micro level" of toilets and doorknobs. He said funds for education programs, which reach thousands of students, teachers and underprivileged arts students annually, is also an immediate need.

Before voting to approve the grant, Mayor George Cretekos said Tampaís famed Riverwalk project spanned the tenure of eight mayors before it was completed. He hoped Imagine Clearwater wonít take as long but said other projects cannot be sidelined in the meantime.

"Unfortunately the magic wand that all of us wish that we had to take care of Imagine Clearwater, to take care of Crest Lake Park, to build sidewalks all over the place, it just doesnít work and it takes time," he said.

"I think we need to forget about just snapping our fingers. We donít get instant gratification. This isnít the Internet. This is taxpayer dollars."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.