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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021 8 months ago

Players Centre pursues lease of Sarasota's Municipal Auditorium

The city and the Players Centre for Performing Arts could partner on the use of a city-owned bayfront facility for the next five years.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

A casual meeting at a coffee shop could produce a new tenant for a city-owned bayfront facility — and allow the city’s oldest arts organization to operate near its longtime home for at least a few more years.

William Skaggs, the CEO of the Players Centre for Performing Arts, grabbed a cup of coffee with then-Mayor Hagen Brody earlier this year. The meetup was informal — Skaggs, hired in summer 2020, was still getting to know people in Sarasota; Brody was checking in on the status of a performing arts institution that announced its intent in 2016 to move out of the city.

The Players Centre has not begun construction on its future home at Waterside Place in Lakewood Ranch, so eventually, the conversation turned to the organization’s immediate facility needs. Although the theater has established a temporary base at The Crossings at Siesta Key, Skaggs was willing to consider other options. Brody had an idea: the Municipal Auditorium, located at 801 N. Tamiami Trail.

Skaggs’s schedule was open, so he and Brody finished their coffee and headed straight to the auditorium, a structure that dates to 1937. Skaggs liked what he saw enough to begin a conversation with city officials about the logistics of the Players Centre holding shows and training sessions at the auditorium, as well as using the building for office space.

Those negotiations are what led to an item on the agenda for Monday’s City Commission meeting, where the board will discuss the possibility of leasing the Municipal Auditorium to the Players Centre. According to the agenda, city staff and the Players Centre are proposing a five-year lease with an option to extend.

Skaggs made clear any agreement to use the Municipal Auditorium would not affect the Players Centre’s ultimate plans for a Lakewood Ranch facility. Still, even though the theater has moved out of its former facility at 838 N. Tamiami Trail — now demolished — Skaggs noted the organization has maintained a footprint in the city, with a studio on Boulevard of the Arts and a set and costume facility on 10th Street. 

Although the city generates some revenue from rentals of the Municipal Auditorium, operating the facility has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses over the past decade. File photo

“The idea of the Municipal Auditorium allows us to maintain what’s already a strong downtown presence, literally across the street from where the old theater was,” Skaggs said.

Play bills

In addition to continuing a partnership with a local arts organization, city officials see the lease as an opportunity to activate an underused property and eliminate expenses associated with operating the Municipal Auditorium.

According to information included with Monday’s agenda, city staff estimated leasing the auditorium to the Players Centre would save the city $72,000 annually. That figure doesn’t cover the totality of the costs associated with the property: Even as the city projects an increase of more than $190,000 in rental revenue at the Municipal Auditorium and Bayfront Community Center in fiscal year 2022, the budget still anticipates the facilities will have an operating deficit of $266,649.

The city’s municipal auditoriums fund, which also includes costs and revenues associated with the Payne Park Auditorium, has operated at a deficit for the past nine years. That deficit has increased each of the past six years, rising from $107,000 in 2016 to an estimated $370,000 in 2021. In the 2021-22 budget, the city reclassified the auditoriums fund as a subset of the parks and recreation department, rather than its historic designation as an enterprise fund, because the activity was not self-sustaining.

Brody said there was a reason the Municipal Auditorium came to mind in his conversation with Skaggs.

“That operation has lost money year in, year out,” Brody said. “It’s a beautiful building, and it’s been restored, and I think it really deserves a higher purpose.”

Brody said he respects the Players Centre’s plans for its future, but he believes the Municipal Auditorium could thrive if the city finds the right tenant. As someone who bemoaned the loss of the Players Centre to Lakewood Ranch, Brody said there’s a particular value in collaborating with an arts organization that’s been around for almost a century.

“It’s hugely important,” Brody said. “Arts and culture is a huge part of who we are as a community, even dating back to John Ringling’s vision for the city of Sarasota.”

Move-in logistics

Even if the rest of the City Commission is supportive of the lease concept, Skaggs noted there are a series of steps that must be taken before any deal can be finalized.

“It’s a process,” Skaggs said. “It’s not one meeting and everything is done and ready to go.”

The organization must obtain a major conditional use permit to lease the auditorium, a process city staff estimated could take four to six months. The Players Centre is requesting the city waive applicable development review fees, which staff estimated would total at least $10,681.

Under the proposed lease, the Players Centre would continue to rent the auditorium to parties interested in using the facility for events. City staff said the theater had agreed to attempt to accommodate long-time events that have operated out of the Municipal Auditorium, such as the coin show and orchid show.

Regardless of what the city decides Monday, the Players Centre will continue to operate at The Crossings in the short-term. The theater’s next show, The Marvelous Wonderettes, is set to run Dec. 8-19.

The proposed lease would not extend to the Bayfront Community Center, located on the west side of the Municipal Auditorium property. The city intends for The Bay Park Conservancy to manage the community center. Skaggs cited the ongoing bayfront redevelopment effort as one reason the Players Centre saw the Municipal Auditorium as an exciting opportunity, also speaking positively about the site’s proximity to other Sarasota arts organizations.

“There’s a lot of wonderful possibilities,” Skaggs said.

Although the rest of the City Commission has yet to weigh in on the proposed lease — and the Players Centre might not be a long-term presence at the auditorium either way — Brody expressed similar optimism about the potential partnership. 

“I think it really is a marriage that could turn into something beautiful for the community,” Brody said.

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