Here's some good news about downtown Clearwater: The Capitol Theatre blew away profit projections in its first quarter as a restored performance venue. And the theater's popularity has generated enough business for shops and restaurants on the same block that the difference between that block and others downtown is now palpable. Clearly this is no time for the city to rest on its laurels.
The 750-seat theater cleared $170,426 after expenses between its soft opening Dec. 18 and the end of March. Officials had projected only around $50,000.
The historic theater on the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue was purchased by the city and renovated, then turned over to Ruth Eckerd Hall to manage. Ruth Eckerd delivered a strong lineup of entertainers during the first quarter, including Jay Leno, ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, comic Sinbad, B.B. King, Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, Eddie Money and Michael Bolton.
The Capitol had plenty of sellouts in its first quarter, a result of that strong lineup, public curiosity about the restoration project and hunger for downtown entertainment. As city officials had hoped, the Capitol has attracted not just Pinellas residents, but also vacationers from Clearwater Beach, just a short drive away over the Memorial Causeway. Another positive: Theatergoers arrive early or stay late to have dinner or drinks at nearby restaurants.
This good news comes even though the theater is not finished. Frenchy's Rooftop Terrace, bound to be a popular spot on on performance nights, hasn't yet opened.
However, as positive as the first-quarter results are, what is increasingly obvious is that the Capitol alone will not revive all of the downtown Cleveland Street district as some officials had optimistically projected it would. Other blocks are marked by more unoccupied storefronts than occupied ones, and even the ground-floor retail space in the high-rise Water's Edge condominium directly across Osceola Avenue from the Capitol has been able to attract only one business: a gelato shop. The Capitol brings crowds in the evenings, but during the day there is little activity.
At the recent Urban Land Institute presentation on reviving downtown Clearwater, Ruth Eckerd president and CEO Zev Buffman asked the expert panel what the city and his organization can do immediately to increase traffic downtown. One of the answers: Downtown should have lots more events than it does, from major events to small ones, like kite-flying contests and dog walks — anything to demonstrate that residents and visitors will go downtown when there is something there to draw them.
The city has been preoccupied by some big issues that have the potential to create major change downtown, including the proposed Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the search for a downtown parking garage location and planning for a major transportation hub that would include light rail. But with no crystal ball to determine when, or if, those big projects will happen, the city should be thinking outside the box and also recruiting partners to organize a wide variety of activities downtown. The Capitol's success has provided some momentum. It's time to spread the fun beyond that block.