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Carrollwood Cultural Center aims for financial self-reliance with broad repertoire

CARROLLWOOD

The Carrollwood Cultural Center opened one year ago, and to mark the anniversary the center is rolling out more of the diverse programming that has become its trademark.

On Saturday night, there's a swanky dance with big band music and champagne.

On March 14, there's an outdoor art show with kids' activities and an emphasis on culture, not commerce. ("I didn't take any crafts," marketing director Laure Pericot said of the lineup. "Only fine arts.")

That evening, there's a play where the audience will try to solve the mystery unfolding on stage.

Together, those events provide a glimpse of what the center seeks to offer to Carrollwood and the communities beyond: variety, a touch of the highbrow and a welcome mat for families.

Financially, the center ended 2008 in the black, partly because of a $380,000 subsidy from the county.

But becoming more self-reliant is an obligation the center recognizes and accepts, said Tom Jones, president of the Friends of the Carrollwood Cultural Center, the nonprofit group that manages the facility.

"We're working very hard on that," he said.

The center began 11 years ago with a modest idea, Jones said. Residents and civic groups in Carrollwood, some people said, ought to have a place to meet and take classes in things like art.

As it evolved, the project grew bigger and bolder.

Hillsborough County officials approved the project in 2002. The county eventually spent $8 million buying and renovating what once was St. Mark's Episcopal Church as the center's main building and the former Church of Christ at Carrollwood as an annex. Then officials turned both over to the Friends.

Since March 2008, the Friends and its staff have worked to burnish the center's reputation, attract volunteers, sell memberships, figure out what works and set a course for the future — all at the same time.

So far, officials say, so good.

"We like to say we've had a lot of divine intervention along the way," said executive director Paul Berg, who previously led the Arts Council of Northwest Florida in Pensacola.

"Doesn't hurt that we're in an old church."

In its first year, the center drew 4,000 people for concerts and performances, had nearly 700 paid memberships and saw 900 to 1,000 people enrolled in classes.

What those folks are coming for is an ambitious mix of programs, including:

• A community band and community chorus.

• Adult and children's courses in painting, pottery, glassworking, cartooning, photography, yoga, dance, cooking, foreign languages and computer instruction.

• Live classical music and jazz concerts.

• Discussion groups on Big Questions like "Is war inevitable?" and "What is truth?"

Closing the aid gap

For the center's administrators, the Big Question is: Can this unique facility build an audience that contributes substantially more toward its operations?

The center's revenue during 2008 was $679,341. That was $80,000 more than its expenses of $599,315.

While more than half of that revenue came from the county under the five-year contract the Friends has to run the center, that will change.

Starting in year three, the county's $380,000 annual subsidy will be reduced.

How much depends on the center's success. At first, the subsidy will be cut by an amount equal to 40 percent of the center's net revenue during its second year, then, in the fourth and fifth years, by 50 percent of the center's net revenue during the previous year.

So the more the center makes, the smaller the county's subsidy will become.

Still, neither center administrators nor county officials count on the center becoming a self-sustaining enterprise any time soon.

While that would be ideal, "you can't really always say that," said County Commissioner Jim Norman, who supported the center from its earliest days.

More realistic, he said, would be to "close the gap as much as possible."

At the end of five years, the center would do well to reduce its county subsidy by 25 percent, Jones said.

To build its audience, Berg said the center tries to book the best talent it can — both for performances and instruction — while keeping prices low.

Tickets for concerts and shows are typically $10 to $15, though a couple were in the $20 to $25 range. One hit $50.

That show, a concert by center artistic director Mary Ann Scialdo, also drew the biggest crowd, Berg said. Scialdo, a Juilliard-trained pianist with a critically acclaimed CD and a photo of herself hanging in Steinway Hall in Manhattan, personifies the sophistication and polish the center tries to bring to its programs.

Last month, the center announced that the Salerno Theatre Company had established the center as its Hillsborough residence. The musical theater company plans to stage crowd-pleasers Oklahoma! in May and Fiddler on the Roof in October.

Performances like that should help the center expand its reach, administrators say.

While most people taking classes or attending concerts have come from within a 5-mile radius, some have come from as far away as St. Petersburg, Land O'Lakes and Brandon.

The challenge, Berg said, will be to offer things people are willing to drive 30 minutes or more to see, hear or do.

"Ultimately," he said, "we are open to anybody and everybody."

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

AT A GLANCE

Fast facts

Carrollwood Cultural Center anniversary events:

Saturday, 7:30 to 10 p.m. — "A Bit of the Bubbly," gala featuring big band music, dancing, vocalist Dee Wieder, hors d'oeuvres and champagne. The cost is $25, $20 for center members. Call (813) 269-1310, ext. 206, for reservations.

March 14, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. — "Arts in the Park" free art show featuring the work of about 20 local artists on the grounds of the cultural center. The event will include live music, art demonstrations, children's activities, food and refreshments.

March 14, 7 p.m. — Kiss My Blarney, an interactive theater mystery with an Irish theme. Tickets cost $25 and include corned-beef sandwiches and a glass of beer.

The center is at 4537 Lowell Road, at the corner of Lowell and Casey roads and South Village Drive. Call (813) 269-1310 or visit www.CarrollwoodCenter.org.

Carrollwood Cultural Center aims for financial self-reliance with broad repertoire 03/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 3:30am]

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