Ruth Eckerd Hall's long-stalled campaign to raise money to renovate the Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater has received a $250,000 boost, thanks to an anonymous donation from a family foundation.
"It was a total surprise," said Zev Buffman, the new CEO and president of Ruth Eckerd Hall, which operates the city-owned theater. "I was seeking a meaningful number. A quarter of a million is a nice, meaningful number."
Buffman started this week in the job, having recently moved from Kentucky, where he headed a performing arts center, to succeed Robert Freedman as chief executive of the Clearwater hall.
"I was shooting in a lot of directions, and suddenly I got a phone call on the Friday before New Year's, and it developed over the weekend as a firm commitment, as an answer to my prayers, wishes and strategies," Buffman said Wednesday.
The plan to renovate the Capitol is budgeted to cost $7.8 million, according to Buffman. The city has committed $3.8 million to the project, and Ruth Eckerd pledged to raise $3 million. The additional $1 million is "subject to further talks with the city about acquiring properties adjacent to the theater," he said.
Though the renovation was announced several years ago, "this quarter of a million is the most substantial contribution" by far, Buffman said, adding that he wants to complete the fundraising quickly. "There's a deadline on this. It will happen this year. This is a 2012 goal, the earlier the better."
Stephanie Smith began this week as chief development officer of Ruth Eckerd and the Capitol. A staff member at the hall from 1998 to 2006, Smith was most recently director of development with Lighthouse of Pinellas for the visually impaired.
Ruth Eckerd has been presenting concerts in the 460-seat theater, ranging from pop performers like Lindsey Buckingham and Colin Hay to classical string quartets. There have been 28 sold-out shows. Buffman plans to begin using the Capitol for plays and other theatrical events.
In early December, before Buffman was on the job, Ruth Eckerd got embroiled in a flap involving the Church of Scientology, whose massive presence in downtown Clearwater has been criticized as discouraging redevelopment. Besieged by complaints from patrons and supporters, the hall had to disassociate itself from a fundraiser by the church for renovation of the Capitol.
Buffman said that the $250,000 gift "absolutely did not" come from the church or one of its members. "The party is anonymous and will stay so until they tell me otherwise," he said. "The leader of that foundation and members of the family are out of the country."
However, he acknowledged that the hall received an invitation and plans to send a representative to a Scientology fundraiser for the downtown theater on Saturday.
Buffman sees the Capitol renovation as a top priority for Ruth Eckerd Hall and the community, even though many in Clearwater have distanced themselves from downtown projects because of objections to Scientology.
"The downtown is critical, and it's not going to go away," he said. "It's the Jerusalem of Clearwater. I plan to meet with all the stakeholders in downtown. I'm going to do everything I can to make this project go, go, go."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected].