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Sellouts may help Ruth Eckerd turnaround

It was a subdued atmosphere at Tuesday's annual meeting of the non-profit organization that runs Ruth Eckerd Hall.

The reason: For the first time in seven years, PACT Inc. failed to balance its budget. It posted an operating loss of $193,000 on expenses of about $9-million for the 1995-96 fiscal year that closed Sept. 30, as disclosed two months ago by executive director Nancy Sullivan Skinner.

"This is a sober time," Skinner said to board members and hall patrons assembled in an upstairs meeting room of the arts center on Tuesday. "The hall is at a crossroads. We need to send a loud and clear message to the community that we need help."

Skinner said the 1996-97 season was shaping up as a turnaround, with what she projected as "a half-million-dollar upswing in ticket sales." Four sold-out concerts in April by crooner Van Morrison and a string of other pop engagements have generated brisk business.

However, Skinner cautioned that the hall was far from out of the woods.

"We are clearly losing ground for the classical arts," she said, citing the sparse turnout for a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, which drew only about a half-full house in the 2,100-seat hall on a Saturday night this month.

Next season will probably see a 50 percent cut in classical music and dance programing, she said. "There has been more anguish than usual in wondering if we can play it safe with pop programing alone," Skinner said.

Skinner said the hall's mixed business stemmed, in part, from competition with other presenters, such as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, and changing demographics in the Pinellas market.

She also warned that the 14-year-old facility needs about $8-million in capital investment, including a new roof; heating, air conditioning and ventilation work; stage improvements; and upgrades to meet the needs of disabled ticket holders.

Jim Cantonis, treasurer of the hall's fund-raising arm, the Performing Arts Center Foundation Inc., said the number of people who donate at least a minimum fee in exchange for ticket buying priority dropped from 7,900 in 1994 to 5,800 today. He attributed some of the decline to longtime supporters who have died or moved.

"We are not being effective in conveying to the new people in the community that this is a jewel deserving of support," Cantonis said.