CLEARWATER — The Royalty Theatre, a historic downtown landmark and former hub for the performing arts, has grabbed the attention of city officials.
There's a chance the city could partner with Ruth Eckerd Hall to buy the roughly 100-year-old building that sits near the corner of Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street.
But to do so, city officials want to take baby steps. They stress that they're not jumping into this until they know more.
First, officials say, they want an appraisal of the property, as well as the nearby Lokey building. Then they want to know just how much money they'll have to pay for the two and just how much the Hall is willing to chip in.
Right now, the city is going to ante up $6,000 for an appraisal, which should happen soon.
Behind-the-scenes talks between the two groups indicate that Ruth Eckerd officials would like the city to pay $2.6-million for the old vaudeville house. And then the Hall would come up with some $11.5-million to renovate it.
City Council member Paul Gibson, who has held talks with Ruth Eckerd officials, said the Performing Arts Center and Theater, which is responsible for operating Ruth Eckerd Hall, would use a $5-million endowment to pay for the renovations. The PACT hopes to raise the remaining $6.5-million.
However, Gibson has concerns that if Clearwater bought the building and the additional money isn't raised, then the city would be stuck with an unprofitable boondoggle.
Although he praised Ruth Eckerd officials, he said he's against spending tax money on the building. He's also against the appraisal.
Other council members don't share his feelings.
"I'm committed to the fact that we should preserve historic buildings in the city," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "There's only a few really left in Clearwater.
Both the mayor and Carlen Petersen said performing arts will have a "great economic impact" and lure more visitors into a downtown the city is trying to revitalize.
Added Vice Mayor George Cretekos: The appraisal "is just one step to see if we should take the next one."
Robert Freedman, president and chief executive officer of Ruth Eckerd Hall, said it's "a little premature to talk about" the purchase.
However, he said he would like to see the his organization operate and maintain the 665-seat building while running jazz and dance events, showcasing up-and-coming artists and hosting film series.
He said Ruth Eckerd officials will meet Wednesday to further discuss the plans.
Socrates A. Charos, who bought the Royalty Theatre in 1999 for $250,000 but lost it a little more than a month ago to lenders, said he has the first option to buy it back if he can raise the money.
However, he said, he'd rather see the city and Ruth Eckerd Hall take over.
"Bless them, that would be great," said Charos, 61, a Dunedin resident.
"This would be good for the artistic community. There's so many good talents and they need someplace to display themselves," he said. "Art brings a lot of joy and happiness to people and I see a lot of hope there."
In December the theater was slated to be auctioned because Charos owed lenders $1.2-million, but he bought time by submitting Chapter 11 bankruptcy papers. He said he lost a lot of customers when the city began revitalization work a few years ago on Cleveland Street that tore up the downtown's main east-west thoroughfare and cut off access to many businesses.
The building, which Charos says is worth at least $2.8-million, has a long and colorful history.
After serving as a vaudeville house, it became a movie theater, only to close in the 1970s when multiplexes took hold. The theater then became a playhouse for a local troupe before the group folded in 1997.
Its history includes a 1981 murder in the theater's balcony and some say they've even seen ghosts in it.