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It's back to drawing board for arts center

(ran PW, PS editions of Pasco Times)

Despite years of planning for a community cultural center, a 5-acre plot on the wooded shores of Hunter's Lake in Spring Hill sits undisturbed.

Once the proposed home for the Hernando County Fine Arts Council's Nimmagadda Cultural Center, the land has gone untouched except for a survey and some core drilling.

That's not the way it was meant to be. Construction of the James Rosenquist Art Gallery and education center and the 1,000-seat Oak Hill Hospital Concert Hall was supposed to start last August. But in a June 26 meeting, the board of the fine arts association voted to shelve the project and return the roughly $500,000 in community donations and $300,000 from the county and state.

The project was named for the late Dr. Sriramamurthy Nimmagadda, an Oak Hill Hospital cardiologist, whose family donated $100,000 toward construction of an arts and cultural center.

His widow, Dr. Sarojini Nimmagadda, said she is disappointed that the center hasn't been built but agrees with the board's decision to return donated money.

"I feel morally obligated to the donors," said Nimmagadda, who works for the Hernando County Health Department. "They donated money for a cause. If that cause does not happen, there is a moral obligation to return that money."

Once her donation has been returned, Nimmagadda said she has lots of ideas for other ways to honor her husband's memory.

"My love and respect for my husband is not in the mortar and bricks for that building," she said. "His patients loved him and that's what matters."

By midweek, officials with the Spring Hill Civic Association, which donated the $100,000 lakefront property for the building, were still waiting to hear from the Fine Arts Council.

"I haven't heard a word yet, but I would think they would return the land," said association president Ki Hill. "If they're giving the contributions back, then they should, in good faith, give us the land back. We're probably not going to have it developed, but who knows?"

That uncertainty over the site was not apparent in May, when Bradenton architect H. Patterson Fletcher presented the Fine Arts Council with plans for a $5-million concert hall.

Fletcher, who owns the small firm overseeing the $20-million renovation at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall, suggested building a 700-seat auditorium, then adding a 300-seat balcony when finances permit.

"All these halls start out that way," Fletcher said."A lot of areas think they can't afford a concert hall, but when they get it built, they already need to expand."

The arts council's problems, he said, were mostly strategic.

"One of the things they needed was somebody to do fundraising for them," he said. "That might have turned it around."

Also, donations from large corporations were likely hindered, he said, once the center and its main concert hall were named. That meant the opportunity for corporations to sponsor the name was eliminated.

Despite this setback, Fletcher still hopes that the arts council can one day realize its dream.

"They're thinking early and that's good," he said. "Down the road, somebody's going to build one and I would like to see them do it."

Meanwhile, some see the decision to shelve the project as an opportunity for the arts council to refocus.

"I will be very pleased if they go back to supporting the arts rather than trying to be the arts," said Barbara Everest, president of Stage West, who was saddened but not surprised that the center project flopped.

"This county just couldn't afford that magnificent building right now."

_ Joy Davis-Platt covers Hernando County arts and entertainment and can be reached at 848-1435. Send e-mail to joysptimes.com.

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