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Center's expansion fund drive on target

Ruth Eckerd Hall is more than halfway to the $22-million it needs for a 47,000-square-foot expansion to the arts complex.

Ruth Eckerd Hall has a "pretty good head start" on raising the $22-million it has targeted to expand, say officials from the Clearwater performing arts facility.

Kathy Rabon, executive director of the Performing Arts Center Foundation Inc., the fundraising arm of the organization, told a small crowd of supporters Monday that the organization has received $13,629,574 from 110 area contributors to finance the expansion.

"We hope to achieve the $22-million goal by the beginning of 2002," Rabon said. "That's a very aggressive campaign for a project of this magnitude, but with the success we have had so far it is a realistic one."

Among those contributing to the expansion of the 17-year-old facility was Florida Power, the top donor among corporate partners, giving $250,000.

Nancy Loehr, community relations manager for the utility company, said the facility's expansion is in line with Florida Power's new commitment to education, the environment and economic development.

"This fits into those commitments," Loehr said. "We have been supportive of Ruth Eckerd for many years, and looking at their commitment to kids we felt we could measure the direct impact it has on our community and that's why we went ahead with it."

Rabon declined to disclose the identities of other contributors but said 69 percent of the contributions came from individuals, 22 percent from government and 9 percent from corporations.

The fundraiser kicked off in May with the organization raising $8-million in three months. Five-million dollars of that money, however, came from the facility's original benefactor, the family of Jack and Ruth Eckerd.

An additional $2-million has been pledged from the city of Clearwater's share of Penny for Pinellas sales tax funds. The project will get another $1-million from the Florida Secretary of State's Cultural Facilities Program, which provides funding support to construction and development of arts programs around the state.

The expansion and renovation plan calls for 47,000 square feet to be added to the 73,000 square-foot facility and will include a larger concourse connecting the east and west sides of the 2,173-seat performance hall, a second-floor lounge, expanded beverage service and more restroom facilities.

But the highlight of the center's renovation, according to officials, is the building's Educational Institute.

The proposed center will be housed on the north side of the current structure and will feature a 175-seat theater, four soundproof practice rooms, three rehearsal and teaching studios, two large rehearsal halls, a visual arts classroom, a media center and a dance studio.

The center will serve Ruth Eckerd's growing programs for students ages 3 to 17 including a summer theater program, professional theater company, performances for local school classes, weekend family theater productions and classes in piano and violin.

Robert Freedman, president and CEO of Performing Arts Center and Theater Inc., the operating arm of Ruth Eckerd, said the expansion is supported by a message the organization actively sends to the community and is fueled in part by the need for arts education.

"We're not just doing bricks and mortar," he said. "This is coming out of the need for quality arts education and people understand that Ruth Eckerd Hall has really helped maintain arts education when it was disappearing from schools."

Construction on the facility's expansion will begin in July.