LARGO — Jeff Donald, a Clearwater photographer and teacher, has a dream that just might materialize. If he gets his way, a newly formed nonprofit group called the Florida Center for Creative Photography will move into the former Gulf Coast Museum of Art.
That's 30,000 square feet of gallery space in western Largo where photographers could spread the word about the joys of photography as an art form.
"Photography is often the stepchild of the arts," said Donald, the director of the new group, which is a merger of the Tampa Photography Forum and the North Pinellas Photography Forum.
Other suitors will compete to lease the museum's vacant buildings from Pinellas County.
The Gulf Coast Museum closed in 2009 because of poor attendance. Its buildings, which include classrooms and a theater, have been empty ever since. They're in the Pinewood Cultural Park between Ulmerton and Walsingham roads, home to the historical Heritage Village and Florida Botanical Gardens.
The Florida Center for Creative Photography wants to use the museum's galleries to display the work of Sunshine State photographers like Clyde Butcher, noted for his black-and-white scenes of Florida landscapes, and St. Petersburg resident Herb Snitzer, eminent photographer of jazz musicians.
The group also hopes to create rotating exhibits of historic Pinellas County photos that have been donated to Heritage Village.
It envisions 30 instructors teaching photography courses that would even include using cell phone cameras.
Pinellas County has tried repeatedly to find a tenant for the museum property, to no avail.
"We had a lot of interest in the space, but no one actually came through with a proposal," said David Delmonte of the county's real estate management department. "People couldn't get the funding or the partnerships they needed."
This time around, the county will accept proposals until Aug. 30 from parties that want to lease the museum buildings. The Florida Center for Creative Photography and at least two other parties plan to submit proposals, Delmonte said.
Whichever bidder is successful will pay $2.50 per square foot for rent, or $75,000 a year.
The nonprofit photography center would need more money to operate the museum site, but Donald is hopeful of obtaining it.
"The utilities will run upward of $90,000 a year," he said, "but our projections for students, classes, workshops, admissions, memberships and more show us operating in the black by the end of the first year."
Is he too optimistic? He thinks not, although he admits that the Florida Center for Creative Photography could use an infusion of about $100,000.
"We are currently seeking membership and donations," he said, adding that the board is speaking with corporations and foundations, and seeking government grants.
"We need initial seed money to buy chairs, desks, phones, tables and computers," Donald said. "That would get us over the hump and give the programs, classes, workshops and exhibitions the chance they need."
The group's goals are wide-ranging and challenging. Donald wants to launch into exhibits and classes for adults, summer programs for children, and high school competitions that could net scholarships for budding art students. He'd like to be in full swing by November.
The word is getting out on the proposed photography mecca. Donald has fans from his five years of teaching photography at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, along with photography aficionados who were members of the North Pinellas Photography Forum. Other amateur photographers have taken photo walks and classes with various group members for years.
The new Florida Center for Creative Photography now has 800 paying members and about 700 "virtual" ones from social media connections. Membership fees are $13 a month, with special rates for students, military members, retirees and disabled adults.
"Something like this might happen once in a lifetime," Donald said, "and we can't afford to let this escape our grasp."