CLEARWATER — Viewing it as the best hope to liven up a sleepy downtown, Clearwater is doubling down on its investment in the Capitol Theatre.
The city will spend $148,000 a year from downtown property taxes to underwrite the cost of nearly tripling the number of shows at the theater. The arrangement could last three years.
The historic venue at 403 Cleveland St., which is owned by the city and run by Ruth Eckerd Hall, has been on pace to host about 36 shows a year. That will now grow to about 100.
The Clearwater City Council voted unanimously Monday in favor of this plan, acting as the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. The goal is to draw more people downtown to attend shows, eat at restaurants and shop. The 483-seat theater is a key part of that strategy. Many of its shows have been sold out.
"It helps businesses downtown," said assistant city manager Rod Irwin. "Every time there's a performance there, they all benefit directly with sales. This will also build a customer base for the theater going forward."
Clearwater bought the vacant 1920s-era theater in 2008 and turned it over to Ruth Eckerd, which operates it as a venue for films and live jazz, classical and pop music performances that wouldn't fill Ruth Eckerd's main venue on McMullen-Booth Road.
The kinds of acts appearing at the Capitol Theatre include names like blues legend Johnny Winter, punk icon Henry Rollins, comedian Steven Wright, and singers like Paula Cole, Richard Marx and Brandi Carlile.
The city's $148,000 per year will largely pay for more Ruth Eckerd staffers to manage a busier schedule of events at the Capitol. Ruth Eckerd proposes to hold 100 shows at the venue annually, with 52 of them live events and the remaining 48 either films or third-party rentals of the building.
"It certainly has had a tremendous impact — recently, especially. I think 16 of the last 18 shows have sold out," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "The theater has gained momentum and a certain following, I believe. … I think it's a good thing for downtown."
When Clearwater bought the theater two years ago, Ruth Eckerd promised to raise $8 million for it — $3 million for major renovations and a $5 million endowment to operate the venue.
But due to the slow economy, fundraising hasn't even begun yet.
"The consensus was, people were not ready to write checks when we started the whole process," said Robert Freedman, president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd. He said they will start fund-raising next year.
Clearwater will underwrite an expanded lineup of shows at the Capitol for three years, or until the theater is renovated and expanded, whichever comes first.
The city gets a 50 percent share of profits from shows that make money. If a show loses money, Ruth Eckerd takes the whole loss.
The $148,000 annual subsidy will come from property taxes generated downtown. By law, Clearwater gets to keep county property taxes from this designated Community Redevelopment Area. The city is supposed to use the money to foster development.
Recently, Clearwater has used CRA tax money to buy downtown's St. Vincent de Paul thrift store for $587,000 and a crime-ridden East Gateway block for $1.9 million. Both purchases are intended to clear the way for redevelopment.
City Councilman John Doran said the Capitol Theatre is worth investing in.
"It is our theater. We bought it for the people of Clearwater," he said. "This is a response to people saying, 'We need activities, we need more programming at the Capitol Theatre. We love it, we want to go there more often.' "
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.