CLEARWATER — For 14 years, a community theater troupe called the West Coast Players has been trekking around north Pinellas County, performing in various venues, operating on a proverbial shoestring.
"We've been this vagabond troupe, bouncing around for years," said the group's president, Alan Mohney Jr. "The timing was right for us to establish our own identity in our own space."
So they decided to build themselves a permanent home, their very own theater in Clearwater. Unfortunately that has backfired, and now the nonprofit group is on the brink of extinction.
Problems with construction and red tape have led to canceled performances and a deepening financial crisis. The group says it hired a general contractor who, it turned out, never got permits for any of the remodeling work that was done on the new venue, which is tucked away in an industrial park along U.S. 19.
That prompted the city to shut the place down — on its opening night, no less.
"We're running out of money," Mohney said. "We've gone almost six months without any solid income. We still don't have our space open, so we can't produce shows."
At this point, the 40-member group is working closely with city inspectors and a new contractor. The city is making them redo much of the work because it wasn't done to code.
"They're in a rough situation right now, but they're working at it," said Clearwater building official Kevin Garriott. "They've been left with a bad deal. Hopefully we'll lead them through the process and get them open."
In the meantime, the group has tapped out its resources and is seeking donations from arts supporters.
"We still have rent to make, and utilities and insurance," said treasurer Jason Freeman. "We're definitely motivated to get this theater going."
The West Coast Players are your prototypical community theater group. The actors, stagehands, set builders and directors include a carpet salesman, a phone-company technician, a probation officer and an optician, along with teachers and retirees. Mohney runs a landscaping company. Freeman works in computer software.
The troupe has searched for a permanent stage since it was founded in 1994 in Oldsmar. Moving from place to place meant costumes were spread out in people's houses, props and flats were here and there, and new venues had to be continuously renegotiated.
For the past few years, they had been fixtures at the Conmy Center at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Dunedin.
Their new digs at 21905 U.S. 19 N are in an industrial park just north of Drew Street behind Clearwater Toyota, across U.S. 19 from Bright House Field.
They decided to lease some empty offices there, knock down interior walls and renovate the space into an intimate 100-seat venue, intending to make it a destination for local theater enthusiasts. "It's right in the middle of Clearwater," Mohney said.
After the renovation work, they thought their new home was ready on Aug. 8 when they were supposed to open their 2008-2009 season with the off-Broadway musical I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.
That day, city building and fire inspectors showed up. They had noticed a cheerful, upbeat article in the St. Petersburg Times about a newly renovated theater in Clearwater opening that night. This was news to them.
"Our contractor had basically finished the project without pulling the permits, or even getting the drawings approved," Mohney said.
Investigative records from the Clearwater Building Department list the original contractor as Ron Eugene Donaldson, 41, of St. Petersburg, president of a company called Construction Specialties.
City inspectors questioned Donaldson when they shut the theater down in August and cited it for code violations, said Garriott, the city building official.
The next month, on Sept. 28, St. Petersburg police arrested Donaldson on charges of battery, burglary and violating his probation. Jail records show that in previous years, he had been charged with operating without a construction permit.
Additionally, Pinellas County had suspended Donaldson's contracting license back in February for lack of insurance.
"We encourage people to come here and look through our files when they're hiring somebody," said Rod Fischer, who heads the county's Construction Licensing Board.
Donaldson didn't return phone calls seeking comment. His company's Web site is shut down.
At the theater, his replacement has had to redo electrical work and plumbing, put in an emergency fire exit, and expand the entrance with double doors, the West Coast Players say.
A Christmas show, The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, is tentatively scheduled to open Dec. 19 — if the building is ready by then.
"The bulk of our season ticket holders have been gracious about the whole situation, but we've lost several thousand dollars in revenue," Mohney said. "We have reached out to everyone we know. We are running out of options."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.