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Florida Orchestra gift may be largest ever

John and Susan Sykes of Tampa will match up to $1-million in new donations to the group's fundraising campaign.

A Tampa couple has made what could be the largest single gift ever to the annual fund for operations of the Florida Orchestra.

John and Susan Sykes have given a $1-million challenge grant, the orchestra announced Friday. Under terms of the grant, the Sykeses will match new donations or increases in contributions to the orchestra's annual fund campaign in the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

"We'll match whatever new dollars they happen to draw down," said John Sykes, chief executive of a Tampa-based computer support company, Sykes Enterprises Inc. "The objective is that they get the full $1-million, and we'll match that. But if they only raise $100,000, then they get $100,000."

The Sykeses' gift comes at a time when the orchestra needs it. In June, chairman Raymond E. Murray announced that the orchestra had wound up the 1998-99 fiscal year, which ended May 31, with a deficit of $250,000 on its $7.1-million budget. The current budget includes substantial increases in the musicians' labor contract.

At the annual meeting, Murray warned that the orchestra needed to raise more money to avoid cutbacks in the coming season.

To balance its 1999-2000 budget, the orchestra projects having to raise $3.5-million from individuals, corporations and foundations. The Sykes grant can help to cover a looming shortfall as well as erase last year's deficit.

"Basically, I have about $2.5-million I can count on from old sources," said Julie Swanson, director of development.

"If we raise the whole sum to match the challenge grant, that additional $2-million will not only go to provide our annual fund needs, but also will help us in creating a reserve fund. It could also contribute to some special funds, such as our library fund for music rental, which costs about $50,000 a year."

Swanson and other officials think the Sykes gift is the largest ever received by the orchestra in its 32-year history.

Since moving to Tampa six years ago from Charlotte, N.C., Sykes Enterprises has grown rapidly, as have many other American technology companies in the 1990s. It had revenue of $470-million last year.

The company has clients that include Gateway, Compaq and Apple. With large holdings in his company's stock, Sykes had a net worth of about $380-million a year ago.

Sykes is becoming well-known as a philanthropist in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere. He recently pledged more than $1-million to the United Way, adding to a $1-million donation he made to the organization in 1997. He also gave $10-million to the University of Tampa.

In July, Sykes made a $5.1-million cash donation to Queens College, the school he briefly attended in Charlotte. That brought his total donation to Queens to $10.4-million _ the largest gift in the school's history.

The Sykeses made a $1-million contribution to the orchestra's endowment fund last year.

"The reason we wanted to do something more at this point for the orchestra is that we have a very keen desire as new residents here to bring a greater cooperative spirit to the full Tampa Bay area," John Sykes said. "The orchestra bridges the gap of all the differences and all of the diversities in a very beautiful way."