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Eckerd hall gets expansion help

Ruth Eckerd Hall is getting help with its planned renovation from an unlikely place.

Safety Harbor commissioners voted this week to donate $100,000 over the next five years toward the $22-million expansion of the hall's arts complex. The new facility 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.

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 are also featured in the new design.

By donating money, the city will get to name a portion of the new building. Which section has not been decided. The family of Jack and Ruth Eckerd has promised to match the city's donation with $40,000.

Though Safety Harbor rarely makes such contributions, commissioners decided this week Ruth Eckerd Hall deserved it.

"The arts plays an important role in the lives of our children, yet it is always the first thing that gets cut from our schools," said Mayor Pam Corbino. "We have never been asked to give them support. . . . Now we are in a good financial postion, that if we wanted to give them a donation every year, we could consider it."

Thanks to property, utility and Penny for Pinellas taxes, the city has socked away $9-million in reserves.

"We are in a postion now where we can support it," commissioner Neil Brickfield said. "And because it offers our residents and children so much, it is smart for us to do it now."

The donation was a pleasant surprise, considering Ruth Eckerd has gotten donations from cities like Clearwater, Largo and Dunedin before, but never Safety Harbor.

"Well, Safety Harbor is not our largest contributor," said Lex Poppens, director of marketing and communications for Ruth Eckerd. "But we are surprised, in the sense that we are delighted that they did."

The fundraising effort to expand the 17-year-old facility kicked off last May. In three months, $8-million has been raised.

Another source of public funding for the 47,000-square-foot expansion came in the form of a $2-million pledge from the city of Clearwater's share of Penny for Pinellas money.

Another $1-million will come from the Florida Secretary of State's Cultural Facilities Program, which provides funding support to construction and development of arts programs around the state.