Sunday, November 19, 2017
News Roundup

Clearwater taxpayers could pay bigger share for Capitol Theatre costs

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CLEARWATER — A proposed new agreement between the city and Ruth Eckerd Hall would require taxpayers to pick up most of the tab for Ruth Eckerd's renovation and expansion of the Capitol Theatre downtown.

About $10 million of the vintage theater's $13 million purchase and renovation would be paid for by the city, the proposal shows, shifting the bulk of the bill from private to public funds.

Presented to the City Council Monday, the agreement shrinks Ruth Eckerd's Capitol tab to $3 million.

The city, which spent $2.4 million to buy the property, had already committed to spending $3.8 million on the renovations. The proposed agreement provides another $4 million in city reserve funds for renovations.

"The city is anxious to get the Capitol Theatre renovated and back in operation," said Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin. "We're ultimately responsible to see we have a first-rate facility."

The new $4 million the city would contribute would otherwise go toward improvements to the Marcia P. Hoffman Institute at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Instead, Ruth Eckerd Hall would be responsible for funding that project.

The reserves the city used would later be replenished from Penny for Pinellas sales tax collections.

If the agreement is approved, the city will pay three out of every four dollars spent on the Capitol's renovation and will remain on the hook for major repairs at the 91-year-old theater on Cleveland Street. Ruth Eckerd, which manages the Capitol, will keep all theater revenue.

The $4 million bump, officials said, will help speed up work on the old opera house, which city leaders call the best hope for invigorating downtown.

"There's no sense in running two large projects at one time," council member Paul Gibson said Tuesday. "This investment is exactly where we'd like it to be made."

The council will likely approve the new agreement Thursday. Construction is expected to begin by the end of the year, Irwin said, with a grand opening likely by late next year.

The renovated Capitol will grow from about 450 to 700 seats, with new chorus rooms, VIP boxes and a private suite, blueprints show.

At 20,000 square feet, the theater will double in size, built out into a back alley and two adjoining properties. Ruth Eckerd Hall has asked to rescind the theater's local historic designation and will submit new exterior and interior designs in the coming months.

The new agreement includes expanding the Capitol eastward into a building now rented by the Blue Dahlia Marketplace, a clothing and furniture boutique opened in 2010.

Ruth Eckerd is under contract to buy that land, at 409 Cleveland St., and sell it later to the city. The 13-foot-wide property sold for $635,000 in 2006. The county now values it at about $165,000.

Though the city sees the Capitol as a potential cure for downtown's ills, tending to it has not come cheap. The city also pays Ruth Eckerd $148,000 a year to underwrite at least 100 performances a year.

Ruth Eckerd has struggled to fulfill its original pledge of an $8 million Capitol fundraising drive. Under the new agreement, Ruth Eckerd would be responsible for opening a $3 million Capitol endowment fund, covering any construction overruns, and handling programming, equipment and basic wear and tear.

The council on Monday considered seeking a guarantee that Ruth Eckerd would pay its share, but ultimately backed off. Council member Gibson said, "We're going to be counting on you to raise the money you promised us you're going to raise."

Added Mayor George Cretekos, "I'm excited about it, but I've got this little cloud that's hanging over me. I don't want, a year from now, not having that money there and us having a completed building. It would be awkward."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

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