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Ruth Eckerd Hall wants time to fill Capitol Theatre piggy bank

The view from Loge Box A in the newly renovated Capitol Theatre provides a clear view of the stage. Ruth Eckerd Hall owes Clearwater $1 million for a reserve fund for the theater, but has only paid $100,000. The theater, which the city hopes will draw people to the downtown area, reopened on Dec. 18.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The view from Loge Box A in the newly renovated Capitol Theatre provides a clear view of the stage. Ruth Eckerd Hall owes Clearwater $1 million for a reserve fund for the theater, but has only paid $100,000. The theater, which the city hopes will draw people to the downtown area, reopened on Dec. 18.

CLEARWATER — One day before the splashy reopening of the Capitol Theatre last month in downtown Clearwater, Ruth Eckerd Hall officials delivered a $100,000 check to the city to create a reserve fund for the historic facility.

That's a lot of money, but it wasn't close to meeting the terms of an agreement between Ruth Eckerd and the city that required a $1 million payment before city inspectors signed off on the renovated theater.

Instead, inspectors issued a temporary 30-day permit for the theater's Dec. 18 opening.

An air-conditioning system in need of repair at Ruth Eckerd Hall off McMullen-Booth Road prompted the arts organization to ask the city to renegotiate the terms of the reserve fund.

Later this month, the City Council will vote on whether to allow Ruth Eckerd to pay $100,000 monthly installments from April until the end of the year to meet its obligation to the fund, intended for maintenance and operations at the Capitol.

It would be the third financial change to the agreement since it was signed in September 2012.

Ruth Eckerd Hall operates the city-owned Capitol and led the recent renovation and expansion of the facility.

In July, unexpected construction costs prompted Ruth Eckerd to ask the city for $500,000 from a state grant. The council agreed, only after several members said publicly that they didn't want to see any more cost overruns.

In December, Ruth Eckerd was back at a council meeting, asking for the city's permission to switch another $500,000 of Penny for Pinellas sales tax dollars designated for an educational center at its main location to the downtown theater.

The council again approved it, although Mayor George Cretekos said he didn't want to see the nonprofit back before council asking for any more money for the educational center.

Council member Jay Polglaze has been vocal about the moving budget targets. On Thursday, he said he wants to learn more about the proposal for phased contributions to the reserve fund, but he wasn't thrilled with yet another fiscal tweak.

"It concerns me, because the last cost overruns were for artistic work that I was not personally happy with. Some of those things should have been covered entirely by Ruth Eckerd Hall," he said. "This is positively the last straw. They can't come back anymore."

Ruth Eckerd president and CEO Zev Buffman said that the city was gracious to consider agreeing to "refashion" the deadline for filling the reserve fund.

He said city leaders are happy with the strong early box office receipts at the Capitol and an impressive array of booked acts in coming months.

The council will consider the new payment arrangement at its Jan. 16 meeting.

Cretekos said he is likely to support the proposal.

"I'm disappointed the money wasn't in place (to repair the air-conditioning system at Ruth Eckerd), but not concerned," Cretekos said. "We need to make sure that we've got money set aside at Ruth Eckerd Hall like we have set aside for the Capitol Theatre."

The city owns both venues, Cretekos noted.

"If Ruth Eckerd Hall doesn't do the work, then the city would have to do it," he said.

The slower schedule to fill the reserve fund doesn't worry the mayor.

"Everything is brand-new at the Capitol. I don't see any need for immediate repairs," Cretekos said.

Still, time is of the essence for Ruth Eckerd to put $1 million in the reserve fund, Polglaze said.

"The shorter the time frame, the more likely I will be to support it," he said.

The cash will have to flow quickly. Ruth Eckerd owes the city another $1 million for the reserve fund on the first anniversary of the theater's opening.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.

Ruth Eckerd Hall wants time to fill Capitol Theatre piggy bank 01/03/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 3, 2014 4:16pm]
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