NEW PORT RICHEY — Should the city turn its First Baptist Church property into a performing arts center?
That idea has been floating around with arts supporters ever since a plan to redevelop the church as a condo and retail project fell apart last year.
On Tuesday, supporters for the first time publicly pitched the idea to City Council members, who were sitting as directors of the Community Redevelopment Agency.
Denise Isaacson, president of Richey Community Orchestra, told council members that Pasco County has many arts organizations "but there is no place for us to call home."
Especially with the presence of the newly renovated Richey Suncoast Theatre nearby, she said, having a performing arts center at the 1,000-seat church would make the city "the cultural nucleus of west Pasco."
Former City Council member Bob Langford, who talked up the idea while running for mayor earlier this year, agreed.
"It's too beautiful a spot … to destroy it and give it away," he said.
Council member Rob Marlowe called it an "intriguing idea" but added that the city needs something on the property that is self-sufficient and helps the city recoup its investment. The city paid $3.1-million for the property, a prime piece of real estate at Orange Lake, in 2005.
"We've got a huge amount of money tied up in it," he said.
The church may require significant renovations in any case. A change in use of the building would trigger safety requirements, including roughly $200,000 for sprinklers.
The board asked City Manager Tom O'Neill to put out another request for proposals from the private sector, one that this time includes the possibility of an arts center. A previous request that went out in January had gone unanswered.
At the same time, O'Neill agreed to lead an effort in coming up with a list of potential cultural grant programs that might help the city pay for a transformation of the church.
Mayor Scott McPherson said it would not hurt to see what the city could do in case a private developer does not step forward.
"We don't know how long we're going to be in this horrendous market," he said. "I hate the idea of inactivity."
The board also talked about what to do with its other church property, the former First Church of Christ Scientist on River Road.
The city paid $1.05-million for the property in 2006 with hopes of using the parking lot for overflow boat trailer parking. But the building remains empty, and the parking lot is not heavily used.
A neighboring church, Life Point Christian Church, is interested in a lease-with-option-to-buy on the property, Pastor Mike Kirby told the board Tuesday.
The board decided to undertake a market study to determine the lease rates the city should charge to Life Point or anyone else who is interested.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.