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Cultural director envisions harmony

Most of her efforts are in the planning stages, but cultural center director Holly Stevens intends to paint her mark on Largo's artistic scene beginning this summer.

Stevens took over as director six months ago to fill the void left by former director Donna McBride. Since then, she's been coming up with new ideas and trying to create partnerships with other cultural venues in the area.

By summer, residents will notice a new coffeehouse series in the Largo Feed Store where acoustic musicians, poets and dancers can set the mood as small audiences snack on desserts and gourmet coffees.

The coffeehouse will target people between 30 and 55, an audience seldom seen in previous programing at the center, Stevens said.

A new-age summer camp is planned where kids will get doses of dance, theater, music and visual arts, then culminate what they've learned into a performance.

Come fall, Largo will be teaming up for the first time with a cultural center in Tarpon Springs on a number of performances that might include chamber music and international acts, Stevens said.

The year 2000 could hold partnerships with larger venues such as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Ruth Eckerd Hall, if Stevens has her way.

Teaming with other venues would be a major achievement for Largo, Stevens said.

"It's something that would bring a different level to our performance here," she said.

Her ability to forge links throughout the area was one of the reasons she got the job, Recreation and Parks director Cathy Santa said. Stevens, who will be 40 next week, once worked for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Before she moved to Largo in July, she was teaching theater management at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

"She brings a strong theater background, and she also brings a connection to many local artistic folks in the community," Santa said.

Stevens says her job is not easy. The cultural center's theater is small, with a capacity of 333. That makes it tough to generate enough revenue to bring in quality entertainment, said Stevens, who makes about $40,000 a year. The task is more difficult because the city wants to keep ticket prices between $6 and $13.

"The challenge we've gotten from the city is to bring in quality acts at affordable prices," Stevens said.

Largo won't be asking Mickey Rooney to perform in a production of the Wizard of Oz as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center did last year. However, if Stevens has her way, the people of Largo could still get in on the action.

She envisions Largo partnering with larger venues such as the performing arts center and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on big name shows. For example, Largo would host a "conversation with Rooney" program where the star would chat with locals and answer questions. Or, Billy Joel might stop by before a concert at Ruth Eckerd and play a few tunes and tell of how he got started.

The Largo program would advertise the major performances, Stevens said. She has not discussed the idea with administrators at Ruth Eckerd or the Performing Arts Center yet.

Right now, the city subsidizes the cultural center with taxpayer dollars, making up about 38 percent of its $800,000 budget. Santa expects that the city will continue to subsidize the center, but the goal is to lessen the extent in coming years.

In the past, Santa has said events needed more marketing and diversity for success. The city hopes to fill a position soon at the cultural center that will boost marketing efforts.

Stevens already has made a change in marketing. She suggested a new design for the center's brochures and pushed for them to be dispersed at area grocery and bookstores.

"We're just making some very obvious changes to get the name out," Stevens said.

She has other ideas too. The cultural center already is home base to the local Eight O'Clock Theater group. Stevens wants the center to house a musical group that would bring in more people and bring name recognition to the center. The city is looking at one group now, she said.