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Clearwater negotiating to buy old Royalty Theatre building

CLEARWATER — The front of the deserted Royalty Theatre is frozen in time.

Behind its dirt-streaked windows are fliers advertising shows that were held six months ago. They're posted alongside black-and-white photos of the nearly century-old landmark surrounded by Model Ts on Cleveland Street. Instead of upcoming show times, the letters on the marquee talk of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The city and Ruth Eckerd Hall still hope to buy and rehab the historic building and turn it into a small but modern hub for the performing arts.

But city leaders are balking at what they view as a steep price to acquire the adjacent Pat Lokey building, which Ruth Eckerd says it would need for additional lobby space, concessions, rest rooms and other amenities. And that building's owner is standing firm on the price.

"The theater would be a performing arts venue where we would do film, live performances, jazz, classical artists, pop entertainment — a similar type of schedule that we do for Ruth Eckerd Hall, but for artists that won't necessarily fill the hall," said Robert Freedman, president and chief executive officer of Ruth Eckerd.

"At this point, it's looking very gloomy. We've not been able to come to an agreement with the owners of the Lokey property. We feel devastated that we cannot get any movement on what we feel is a really important project."

Ruth Eckerd's original proposal went like this:

• The city would buy both properties for $2.6-million — $1.1-million for the theater and $1.5-million for the Lokey building at Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street.

• Ruth Eckerd would raise $8-million — $3-million for renovations and $5-million for an endowment to operate the theater.

• The hall and the city would seek nearly $4-million in federal grants for the remaining renovation costs.

The snag came when the city recently had a second appraisal on both properties. Instead of $1.1-million and $1.5-million for the two buildings, the new appraisal valued each building at $875,000.

The city told Ruth Eckerd to renegotiate the price. Although the theater's owner was willing to talk, negotiations with the Lokey building's owner have stalled, Freedman said.

Michael Ogilvie, the Clearwater real estate broker representing the Lokey property, is talking tough. He says the second appraisal for $875,000 is "absurdly ridiculous. I could sell that building at that price a million times over."

The property last changed hands in October 2004 for $700,000, but Ogilvie insists that price was "an absolute steal." He says the presence of the new Water's Edge condominium tower, among other factors, makes the corner building worth more.

"We've got our heels dug in. We're pretty inflexible on what we think the value of the property is," Ogilvie said. "The City Council needs to see the big picture. Here you've got a big player like Ruth Eckerd that wants to put a ton of money into this theater, and the city is getting hung up on an appraisal of a unique property in a bad market."

The 5,600-square-foot Pat Lokey building used to house a women's fashion boutique and is being leased by the Water's Edge sales office through next year.

The city doesn't want to overpay. If Ruth Eckerd were to fail in renovating and running the theater, "we don't want to end up owning that property at a price above market," said City Council member Paul Gibson, a Realtor.

City Manager Bill Horne said the second appraisal put the value of the combined properties at $1.7-million, nearly a million dollars lower than what the city was originally asked to pay.

"Now there's some question about what is the real value of the property," Horne said. "The council's expectation is that, unless the property comes in below $2.6-million, they're probably not interested in buying it at the asking price."

Ruth Eckerd says it needs to put a lobby, concessions and dressing rooms in the Lokey building's space to operate the Royalty Theatre.

"These are important amenities," Freedman said. "We're working with a 1920s building. If you were building a contemporary theater today, you would need a larger lobby."

The bottom line: For now, the whole thing is on hold.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Royal Theatre has been home to vaudeville, opera and movies

1921: Originally named the Capitol Theater, it opens as a venue for vaudeville and opera. By the 1930s it becomes a movie house.

1981: A local theater group leases and remodels the building, which by this time had changed its name to the Royalty Theatre. The group is christened the Royal Theatre Company.

1996: The Taylor family, longtime owners of the

theater, sells it for $132,000.

1997: The Royalty Theatre Company folds after

losing its exclusive arrangement to use the theater because of the sale.

1999: The city and Ruth Eckerd Hall talk about buying and restoring the theater, but no deal is made.

1999: Socrates Charos buys the theater for $250,000. He and private investors make

$3.8-million in renovations.

2008: Charos loses the theater to foreclosure.

Clearwater negotiating to buy old Royalty Theatre building 10/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 2:00pm]
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