Hernando County arts groups eye site for an arts center

BROOKSVILLE — For years, it has been a dream of those who work in and support the local arts community to have a cultural center in Hernando County that would support music and dance performances, studios, classrooms for arts education, and an art gallery.

Despite several well-intended efforts, none got much further than the drawing board. Money, or lack of it, doomed them all.

However, a new group made up of representatives from several local arts groups, including the Hernando County Fine Arts Council, the Spring Hill Art League, the Hernando Jazz Society and the Hernando Symphony Orchestra, has popped up recently with a plan to convert a former car dealership into an arts center.

Fine Arts Council executive director Myndee Washington said last week that she has been authorized by the group to send a letter of intent to the owners of the defunct Hernando Suzuki dealership on Cortez Boulevard.

According to Washington, the asking price is $1.9 million for the 6,600-square-foot building, which is owned by the Bank of Ocala. But her hope is that the group she represents can get it for far less than that.

"We think there's plenty of bargaining room," Washington said. "If we can agree on a price for a lease or purchase, then that will be the first of many steps we'll need to take."

While the initiative has the support of several local groups, no single group is leading the effort to secure the building, Washington said. Rather, if a deal can be reached, a new nonprofit group would be formed to oversee the development and operation of the center and to conduct fundraising.

"It's in the very early fact-finding stages right now," Washington said. "We have no numbers, only ideas. But there's a strong consensus that this is what is needed in our community."

Washington said that a walk-through of the building showed that there was enough under-roof space for an auditorium, plus ample space for classrooms, studios and offices. Although there is $50,000 to $60,000 in seed money available through the various arts groups, she acknowledged that most of the money needed to convert the building into a cultural center would have to come from grants or donations.

Spring Hill Art League president Esther Pohl said that the area has long been in need of a single site for local arts groups. Her group has 140 members who meet regularly to paint at a building they rent from the United Church of Christ.

"We're a growing organization, and it would be nice to have a permanent home," Pohl said. "This would be a wonderful place to make that happen."

Washington said representatives of the arts groups agreed that moving slowly on the project would help them avoid the pitfalls the Fine Arts Council faced nearly 10 years ago when it embarked on building the ill-fated Nimmagadda Cultural Center.

That effort, which began in 1999 with a $50,000 donation from the family of the late Dr. Sriramamurthy Nimmagadda. Over the next two years the council raised almost $500,000 toward the project that, over time, ballooned from a proposed $1 million facility to a gargantuan complex that would have cost nearly $10 million to build.

After conceding that the area couldn't support such a center, the council finally abandoned the idea in 2003, after it had spent almost $200,000 it had collected in gifts and grants for consultants and architects.

Washington said she wants to avoid a similar situation at all costs.

"That's why we're looking for input from everyone," Washington said. "Without that and the momentum to get it done, it could easily die on the vine."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

Hernando County arts groups eye site for an arts center 03/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 8:13pm]

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