Clearwater has few historical landmarks left. One that remains standing is the old theater formerly known as the Capitol, now known as the Royalty, that drew crowds to the 400 block of downtown's Cleveland Street through much of the 1900s. They came originally for vaudeville and opera, later for movies, live concerts and community theater.
Local art advocates believe that history is worth saving, and they are talking with the city of Clearwater about buying the theater so it can be given a second life as a venue for film series, concerts and performing arts.
The question that confronts Clearwater officials and city residents is this: Should the city even consider buying the theater building, at an estimated cost of more than $2.7-million, when city employees are being laid off, city programs cut and the city reserve fund shrinking?
In flush times, saving this piece of history would be a no-brainer, but these are not flush times. Yet unless the city acts, the old theater could be auctioned off and converted to some other use that obliterates its historic value.
The solution is for city officials to proceed slowly and cautiously to examine the pros and cons of purchasing the building, while gathering public comment and mounting an all-out search for grants or partnerships that could provide dollars for the purchase.
Officials from Ruth Eckerd Hall have approached the city about forming a partnership. In preliminary talks, hall officials have suggested that the city buy the 665-seat theater and the neighboring Lokey building. Ruth Eckerd Hall and its benefactors would come up with several million dollars and seek grant dollars to transform the buildings into a performance venue with modern-day amenities. Ruth Eckerd officials also want to create a $5-million endowment fund to help cover operating costs.
Ruth Eckerd Hall's involvement is a huge plus. City officials have done two things so far in response: agreed to pay $6,000 for an appraisal, and worried about the timing.
No final decisions have been made by either the city or Ruth Eckerd Hall, and talks are ongoing. However, City Council member Paul Gibson already has telegraphed that he opposes the idea if it requires using tax dollars. Mayor Frank Hibbard and council member Carlen Petersen said they like the idea of saving a historic structure and creating a downtown arts attractor. Vice Mayor George Cretekos supports getting the appraisal as a first step.
While council members may endure some criticism for considering this idea during the current economic downturn, it is important that they not slam the door on the idea. Even in tough times, government needs to make investments in the future.
And now isn't necessarily a bad time to invest in property. Property values have fallen. And Socrates Charos, who bought the Royalty Theatre in 1999, lost the building to the bank a month ago when he was unable to pay the $1.2-million remaining on the loan.
Clearwater officials may discover that the property will cost less than anyone imagined.
Investments made to preserve land, to build public amenities and to restore historic structures often require that a community stretch financially and search for creative alternatives that reduce the use of tax dollars. It is hard work and it requires strong leadership, but seldom does a community look back on those investments with regret.