CLEARWATER — Although they don't like the price, City Council members are leaning toward buying the historic Royalty Theatre and having Ruth Eckerd Hall turn it into a downtown performing arts center.
They acknowledge that, politically, the timing isn't great for a major city purchase, with citizens feeling the effects of the poor economy. But they think this is a vital project — the city's best shot at drawing people to a downtown that's in decline.
"This is a magnet that will make downtown Clearwater a success," said council member George Cretekos. "We won't have any vacant storefronts like we have now. ... This will be the catalyst."
The vacant 1920s-era building at 403 Cleveland St. would become a venue where Ruth Eckerd would show films and live performances of jazz, classical artists and pop music acts that wouldn't fill its main venue on McMullen-Booth Road.
At a work session Monday, a majority of City Council members indicated they'll likely vote for the deal at their meeting Thursday night.
Until now, they've been balking at what they view as a steep price to acquire the adjacent Pat Lokey building at the corner of Cleveland and Osceola Avenue. Ruth Eckerd says it would need that property for additional seating, lobby space, concessions, restrooms and other modern amenities to make the small theater financially viable.
Here's the deal:
• The city buys both properties for $2.3-million — $975,000 for the theater and $1.335-million for the Lokey building. That combined price is $300,000 less than what was quoted a few months ago.
• Ruth Eckerd raises $8-million — $3-million for renovations and $5-million for an endowment to operate the theater.
• The hall and the city seek nearly $4-million in federal grants and other funding for the remaining renovation costs.
Council members debated the merits of the deal Monday.
John Doran objects to paying $1.3-million for the Lokey building, which sold four years ago for only $700,000. But the building's owner is holding firm on the price.
Paul Gibson thinks the city has been spending too much money recently. Instead of using city revenues, he suggested buying the properties with Clearwater's share of future Penny for Pinellas sales taxes.
Carlen Petersen argued that bringing a Ruth Eckerd theater to downtown is a wise investment.
"One of the reasons I ran (for office) back in 2004 was, I was tired of seeing an empty downtown," she said. "This is an incredibly unique project. I know there are restaurants and retailers out there watching to see what we do. If we don't do this, they may just walk away."
And Mayor Frank Hibbard thinks a performing arts center could bring more activity to Clearwater's core than a downtown movie theater, which the city has long sought.
Pricey palm trees
On another subject, the council questioned whether the city should bring in expensive Medjool date palms for the next stage of the Cleveland Street makeover.
The second phase of the streetscaping project is to start next fall just east of the downtown core, on Cleveland between Myrtle and Missouri avenues. It will be a cheaper version of what the city did between Myrtle and Osceola — a stretch of Cleveland Street that's now lined with more than 50 Medjool palms.
The city of Pinellas Park was criticized earlier this year for importing Medjools from Arizona rather than buying cheaper Florida palms.
On Monday, Clearwater council members were shown a landscape architect's plans for the upcoming project, calling for 17 Medjools at a cost of $7,000 apiece.
Let's get cheaper palm trees this time, they said. They'll take up the subject again next month.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.