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$20 million fundraising campaign to upgrade Ruth Eckerd Hall, Capitol Theatre

CLEARWATER — Ruth Eckerd Hall has a new chief executive who likes to think big. In his first major fundraising effort, Zev Buffman seeks not only to upgrade the popular performing arts center but also to energize a stalled project to renovate the downtown Capitol Theatre.

And he wants to kick start economic development with an outdoor amphitheater, a project Clearwater officials say is now more speculative than reality.

On Wednesday, Ruth Eckerd officials announced a $20 million fundraising campaign designed to achieve two things:

• $12 million to improve the main hall, focusing on increasing its visibility from McMullen-Booth Road and expanding the lobby, in time for its 30th anniversary in December 2013;

• $8 million to restore the Capitol, which Ruth Eckerd has been operating for the city for more than two years.

Both fundraising projects had at least been on the drawing board, but Buffman, who became CEO of the hall in January, decided to put them together. "If you do not go for both of them at the same time, one of them will be lost," he said. "We have a good story by doing them simultaneously."

In addition, Buffman is laying out a vision for downtown Clearwater that ties the Capitol renovation to his proposal to raze the mostly vacant Harborview convention center, across the intersection of Cleveland and Osceola streets from the theater, and replace it with a complex centered on an outdoor amphitheater, with seating for about 4,000 and entertainment programmed by Ruth Eckerd Hall.

The idea is to provide a counterbalance to the Church of Scientology's dominant presence downtown. "What you do is build around them," Buffman said of the church. "Surround them with positive activities."

However, Buffman's concept for downtown revitilization faces an uphill battle. City officials said it's too soon to consider seriously his idea for Harborview and the surrounding land on the bluff overlooking Clearwater harbor.

Closed in 2009 after decades as a department store and convention center, Harborview was being readied for the wrecking ball last year when the Clearwater Marine Aquarium won a lease for its second floor, delaying demolition.

Few Clearwater leaders want to keep the waterfront white elephant standing because it costs the city $60,000 a year to maintain and needs nearly $4 million in repairs. But they concede that while the aquarium's popular Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure exhibit stays open, all they can do is wait. The exhibit devoted to the aquarium's tailless dolphin has a lease through March 2014. Aquarium CEO David Yates said city leaders might be willing to consider an extension.

City Manager Bill Horne said Ruth Eckerd's concept of combining the Capitol restoration and an amphitheater was merely one of many competing ideas. Within the last year, groups have pushed to move in a children's museum, an armed forces museum, or to sod over the land as an extension of Coachman Park. Buffman tended to work "on a much faster schedule than we're used to," Horne said.

Mayor George Cretekos preached patience, saying residents and aquarium leaders deserved time to consider their options.

The $12 million remake of Ruth Eckerd Hall, designed by Klar and Klar Architects of Clearwater, with construction scheduled to begin in January, is meant to fix two of the venue's shortcomings. One is its location, tucked away from busy McMullen Booth. "There's going to be a sense of arrival that doesn't exist now," Buffman said, describing new signs, landscaping and lighting at the entrance and on the way into the hall's parking lot.

The largest portion of the upgrade is to expand the lobby on the west side of the building. Currently a cramped 1,500 square feet, the new lobby will include an additional 7,000 square feet. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls are featured in the redesign, which includes a new roof, some 25 feet higher than the current low-slung roof.

Also requiring attention is Murray Studio Theater, part of the hall's educational arm, the Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute. Though it opened just 10 years ago, "the Murray needs very serious reworking," Buffman said, citing inadequate storage, entrances and ticketing facilities as well as seats he wants to replace because "they shake, rattle and roll."

As for Ruth Eckerd's main theater, it will not be changed. "We don't touch what is not broken," said Buffman, adding that the hall will remain open during the construction.

On Wednesday, Buffman un-veiled new plans by the Clearwater firm of Fowler Associates Architects for the Capitol renovation that tied the theater to the adjoining Lokey Building, currently home to the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. The two-story building would house the renovated 670-seat theater's lobby, dressing rooms and a donors' lounge. Construction is scheduled to begin late this year.

Buffman and the Ruth Eckerd board of directors have set a goal to raise the $20 million by the end of 2012. "We've been in a quiet campaign in terms of commitments and have about $8 million committed, which leaves us to raise nearly $12 million between now and the end of the year," said Joshua Magidson, the board chairman since March. The amount committed includes $3.8 million allocated by the city to the Capitol renovation. In 2010, city leaders voted to pay about $150,000 a year to support programming there.

In many ways, Ruth Eckerd is dealing from a position of strength. A nonprofit organization that relies on a combination of donations and ticket revenue, it is having a strong 2011-12 fiscal year, with projected gross revenue of about $10 million, a 10 percent increase over the previous period. At the Capitol, Buffman projects attendance of 100,000 for shows during the 2012-13 season.

Clearly, the strategy behind the fundraising approach is to combine a popular project, the upgrading of the main Ruth Eckerd Hall, with the more adventurous one of staking a claim for the hall in downtown Clearwater. "You can't separate the Capitol Theatre and Ruth Eckerd Hall anymore," said Magidson, a Clearwater lawyer. "You can't segregate them. They have to be done together. Ruth Eckerd Hall is both now."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4170.

$20 million fundraising campaign to upgrade Ruth Eckerd Hall, Capitol Theatre 05/10/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 10, 2012 12:30am]

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