TAMPA — The show must go on, a Hillsborough Commission majority decided Wednesday.
In a 5-2 vote, the commission awarded a $7.3 million construction contract for a 20,000-square-foot performing arts center in New Tampa, a project first proposed in 2004.
“Promises made, promises kept,” said Commissioner Gwen Myers. “I hope no other community will go through 17 years of waiting on a decision from our county ... on a project in their community.”
The project’s long-time champion, Commissioner Ken Hagan, whose district includes New Tampa, said the theater would fulfill a commitment to the community, expand economic development, and bring much-need cultural opportunities to the vicinity.
The board delayed consideration of the contract a month ago after commissioners, including Myers, asked about potential long-term subsidies and possible contributions from the city of Tampa. The site — on the west side of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard across from the entrance to the Hunter’s Green development — is within the city.
Wednesday, 15 speakers, most affiliated with the New Tampa Players which would be based in the theater, urged the commission to move forward. Tampa City Council member Luis Viera did likewise and said he has asked the city to contribute to annual operations.
“I’m confident of support. ... I’m willing to bet a lot if money it will go through,” Viera told commissioners.
The dissent came from Commissioner Mariella Smith and Chairwoman Pat Kemp. Smith continued to ask why an agency from Manatee County, the Florida Cultural Group, had been identified as the potential operator.
“It just seems unworkable,” said Smith. “I need to see a plan for local community involvement and leadership.”
A decade after failed community fundraising attempts, the commission turned to a private developer in 2014 to try to advance the theater. It picked Harrison Bennett’s offer for a little over $2 million in cash and $1.7 million in improvements. The county later discounted the cash price to $1.8 million, saying the improvements were more valuable than the original requirement.
The capital improvements included a pad-ready site for the theater, a 3-acre dog park, access road and 250 parking spaces. In exchange, Harrison Bennett received the ability to develop the rest of the property. The land it held, fronting Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, is now a shopping center anchored by Sprouts Farmers Market. It sold a portion of the property for $4 million and that is now the site of the Trail at Hunter’s Lake apartments..
Among Kemp’s criticisms was the location between a newly built shopping center and apartment complex.
“I think this would … be a boondoggle, to me, to put an iconic building behind a strip mall and in front of an apartment building,” she said.
Commissioner Harry Cohen acknowledged “legitimate questions about how this is gong to be operated,” but he repeated Myers comments about keeping a long-standing promise to New Tampa residents. Cohen also noted the cash crunch facing the Hillsborough School District and the potential that arts funding in the schools could be shaved.
The commission can’t help the school district, he said, but, “one thing we can do is provide funding to arts programs and make sure kids and adults and everyone in the community who wants exposure to arts can have it.”
In response to concerns about a Manatee-based operator, commissioners later voted unanimously to seek proposals from vendors interested in operating the 350-seat theater.