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SUN CITY CENTER SPLIT ON THEATER

Clubs want a space for performing arts while others don't want the debt.

"Keep SCC Debt Free" signs are popping up on dozens of front lawns all over this SouthShore retirement community, much to the frustration of clubs that want a new performing arts theater for dramatic productions, musical revues and other events.

The desire to create a new theater grew out of a 2012 survey and blue ribbon committee that analyzed and ranked 37 short-term and long-term projects requested by residents, including a theater.

Del Webb's Sun City Center development plan in the early 1960s did not include a theater. Several ballroom-like facilities were constructed that included simple stages but not the kind performance stage needed for concerts, dramatic shows or other professional entertainment.

One of the original structures - with a multipurpose room similar to the current Florida Room on the main campus - was eventually pressed into service and converted into the current Rollins Theater.

Chuck Colette, spokesman for the Sun City Center Theater Fund Group and a member of the community association board of directors, said the Rollins Theater has many shortcomings, including inadequate seating, acoustics, an inefficient stage, deficient lighting and sound, and no restrooms in the building.

Audience members must leave the theater, cross an open-air plaza, and use facilities in an adjacent public building.

"You can imagine the inconvenience for anyone, but particularly seniors over 70," Colette added.

Rear stage room for sets and props also is non-existent. There are no backstage rooms for actors to don makeup or costuming. Darkening the theater is near impossible because the room has light leaks from the original windows.

"A number of clubs and others use Rollins, including our club, the Performing Arts Club, Front Porch Strummers, FunFest, holiday programs and several annual fundraisers," said Paddy Cooney, president of the Irish Connections Club.

"We must say that it is extremely sad that our wonderful town is having what is turning out to be a very dividing and unnecessary split among friends and neighbors."

Cooney noted that audiences are short changed with the current facility while other residents complain that shows, fundraisers and rehearsals have had to be moved to local churches and other facilities off the SCC campus.

A preliminary estimate by SOL Design Studio to design and construct a new theater was projected at $3.5 million based on a 11,250 square foot building. Without specific technical specifications, the project could prove costlier than the $3.5 million estimate.

Colette said operating costs could be covered through fundraising and the theater could be shared with other clubs.

Critics arose after a needs statement and financial proposals made the rounds through social networking. The yard signs followed shortly after that.

"Many residents feel the board has not looked at all the alternatives to building a new theater, said Ed Feder, a long time Sun City Center resident and former community association board member. "And reviewing only two financial packages is not sufficient. The perceived need for a theater is skewed to the performing arts club."

Feder pointed to a study conducted by association board member Mike Killian that placed the current daily usage of Rollins Theater at 20 percent.

"We have other organized clubs offering sports programs, hobby activities, studios, and facilities not at Rollins that far exceed 50 percent usage daily and many should be demanding greater development of their club needs over the needs for a new theater," said Feder, who also noted that the theater ranked 31st out of 37 needs on the original committee list.

Killian added that having a debt-free association ranks as high as a "brick and mortar theater" when it comes to attracting residents.

The Sun City Center Community Association will resolve the issue with a two-question community referendum Dec. 2 and 3: Do you want a new theater? Do you want the Community Association to finance the new theater?

A simple majority vote on both will mandate the board to continue designing and constructing a new theater and to initiate a loan to finance the project.

However, association president Jane Keegan said the vote - which will come only from qualified members of the community - could result in a yes for the theater and a no for financing.

"Should that be the case, I believe the clear voice of the membership is to build the theater, but do it on a 'pay as you go' basis," Keegan said. "That will take many years to accomplish."

Contact Doug Arnold at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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IF YOU GO

Issue meetings

Two town hall meetings on the issue of a proposed theater in Sun City Center: 7 p.m. on Oct. 22 at the Sun City Center Community Hall for the general membership; and 9 a.m. on Nov. 13 at the Florida Room for participants with current Sun City Center ID cards.

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