TAMPA — The curtain isn’t ready to rise yet on a performing arts center planned for New Tampa.
A Hillsborough commission majority balked last week at awarding a $7.3 million construction contract amid questions about long-term operating costs and administrative concerns over the location of the proposed manager — Manatee County.
“The timing just feels wrong on this,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman, pointing to other more pressing transportation-related capital projects that the county can’t afford.
The project’s long-time advocate, Commissioner Ken Hagan, agreed to defer a commission vote until next week, but highlighted the 17-year history of what used to be referred to as a cultural center, but now is known as the New Tampa Performing Arts Center.
“It’s going to be an awesome facility. I have no idea why it’s taken so long to get to this final approval,” Hagan said. “Candidly, we should be celebrating the ribbon-cutting, not approving the construction contract.”
The proposed performing arts center will be a 20,000-square-foot building, with the potential for a future second-floor addition, on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, directly across from the main entrance to the Hunter’s Green neighborhood. It is designed as a 350-seat venue with four dance studios and retractable seating so the floor space can double as a reception hall. The county financed most of the more than $8 million capital project via a 2019 bond issue.
But post-construction expenses raised commissioners’ eyebrows. A proposed operating agreement with Florida Cultural Group, formerly known as the Manatee Players, calls for county subsidies totaling more than $1.4 million over the next four years with nothing spelled out beyond 2025.
“What is our obligation every single year going forward once we embark on this?” asked Commissioner Harry Cohen. “That’s what I’d really like to know. Does it go to zero in 2025 or is it (the subsidy amount) going to be determined then?”
The proposed theater’s location within the city of Tampa also had Commissioner Gwen Myers and Chair Pat Kemp wondering why there was no financial commitment from the city.
“The city will not contribute anything. So, let’s not go down that path,” said Hagan.
That was news to Tampa City Council member Luis Viera, whose district includes the site. He said Monday he would seek funding for some of the center’s maintenance and operations in the city’s 2022 budget.
“It is very important the city of Tampa support the arts throughout the city,” said Viera. “... I certainly will be glad to make that request.”
The performing arts center’s origins date to 2004 and the widening of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The county obtained 81 acres for drainage tied to the road work, but later designated 13.4 acres as the New Tampa Community Park. But it budgeted no money for amenities, and in 2009 agreed to reserve the land for use by the New Tampa Players and Tampa Bay Sportsplex Inc. The agreement came with the caveat that the two groups had to raise enough money to build a “community cultural center” within five years.
That deadline passed in 2014, and the city tried a different tactic by seeking private development proposals. Eventually, the commission picked Harrison Bennett/Regency as the developer and sold it the land for just more than $2 million in 2018. The company got the right to build a grocery and upscale retail stores in exchange for providing the dog park, access road, and a pad-ready site for the performing arts center. The county later hired FleischmanGarcia Architecture to design the theater, and Bandes Construction Co. was the low bidder to build it.
Hagan said, by his count, there had been 15 separate commission votes on the project over the years.
But last week’s planned vote didn’t happen, in part, because Commissioner Mariella Smith asked why a Manatee County-based group had been designated as the likely operator. Why is the county committing to put an $8 million project “somewhere where there’s not more local community control and management and involvement,” she said. “I’d be looking for more commitment from the local community organizations.”
So will the Florida Cultural Group, which operates the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
CEO Janene Amick said Manatee’s 352-seat theater, plus an 85-seat black box theater, allowed for a pre-pandemic entertainment schedule of approximately 200 dates annually, Community groups, like the Kiwanis, county bar association and county veterans council take advantage of the available meeting space, she said, and upstairs is a 300-seat ballroom for wedding receptions and other special events.
“What we try to do is let people know it is a place of central community gatherings, and we want to bring that same model and that same community prosperity — where everybody feels as though it’s their center — to New Tampa,” Amick said.
The Manatee Performing Art Center’s annual budget is approximately $2.3 million, not counting in-kind contributions, with no direct government subsidies from Manatee County or the city of Bradenton, she said. It does receive event sponsorships from the Bradenton Area Visitors and Convention Bureau.
The New Tampa Players are slated to be the in-house community theater group in the New Tampa Performing Arts Center.
The theater group’s president, Nora Paine, said she looks forward to the performing arts center.
“New Tampa has many amenities for sports and recreation that enrich residents’ lives,” said Paine, “but it does not have a place where the arts can blossom and grow in our community.”