The Players Theatre is selling its property near the bayfront and moving to Lakewood Ranch. Why is the oldest arts organization in Sarasota leaving the city?
Ever since she took a job at the Players Theatre in 2002, Michelle Bianchi Pingel has been part of an organization searching for the best way to capitalize on a prime piece of real estate.
The Players owns a 1.8-acre site at 838 N. Tamiami Trail, a site it has occupied since 1936. A two-story performance and office space currently sits on that campus, situated between the 18-story Alinari condominium building and 10-story Jefferson Center housing complex.
For more than a decade, Bianchi Pingel says, the community theater has considered embarking on a new model. There had to be a way to leverage the value of the land to benefit the organization as a whole. But as the real estate market crashed and recovered — and Bianchi Pingel ascended to the role of managing director and CEO in 2008 — the Players never developed a serious plan for the future.
“I always described us as a middle-to-lower-class family, where we’re land-rich and cash-poor,” Bianchi Pingel said. “We’re a community theater, and we’ve got this multimillion-dollar property.”
Now, that’s changing. On Monday, the Players made a big announcement: It’s putting its current property up for sale and moving to Lakewood Ranch.
The organization is also rebranding as The Players Centre for the Performing Arts. In conjunction with the news, Bianchi Pingel announced a new $25 million fundraising campaign.
“We have to think big,” she said. “We can’t think show-to-show anymore.”
Bianchi Pingel knows many of the theatre’s patrons will be taken aback by the news. Why leave downtown Sarasota, the center of a community that prides itself on how it embraces the arts?
One reason is, naturally, money. The property is listed for $12.5 million, which will go a long way toward covering the expenses associated with the new 4.5-acre Lakewood Ranch campus.
In that regard, the timing is fortuitous. Love or hate the ongoing condominium boom, there’s no disputing the high demand for luxury residential projects near the bayfront. Although a split zoning designation complicates the redevelopment of the Players property, a segment along Tamiami Trail is zoned Downtown Bayfront. A builder could potentially construct an 18-story, 66-unit condo on that land.
The Players is working with Ian Black Real Estate to list the property. Even at this early stage, Black believes that demand make a high-rise condo is the highest and best use for the land. He believes external forces are contributing to the continued interest in high-end housing.
“I know a lot of people don’t like it, because it’s not like it used to be,” Black said. “But things like taxes are driving people out of New York, out of California and into Florida. What’s not to like about coming to live here?”
Black said it’s possible that a buyer could close on the land — and potentially begin construction — within 12 to 18 months.
Bianchi Pingel is willing to accept a significant challenge to make this move a reality.
There will inevitably be a gap between the sale of the current property and the opening of the new theater. The hope is to find a buyer who’s willing to let the Players lease the land until its new home is complete.
If a new developer wants to kick the Players out after closing on the sale, that makes things more complicated. Still, the priority remains selling the current property; the Players will devise a plan for the interim period between venues as necessary.
“We’re more interested in getting money in the bank so they can build with confidence out east,” Black said.
Although the Players eyes an aggressive 2019 completion for the first phase of the new facility, that could mean more than a year without a dedicated theater space. Bianchi Pingel said the organization was originally intimidated by the prospect of losing a permanent home. But as long as the Players is moving ahead in Lakewood Ranch, she’s confident the other pieces will fall into place.
“I will find other theaters where we can put our Broadway shows on, and I’ll move the organization into office space temporarily,” Bianchi Pingel said. “We can have a temporary box office somewhere else. We’re not going to freak out over this.”
Christine Jennings, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Sarasota County, has been one of Bianchi Pingel’s confidantes as the Players plotted this move. As the former director of the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe — a group that lacked a permanent residence at the beginning of Jennings’ tenure — she can attest to the difficulty of running an arts organization without a home.
“We have to think big. We can’t think show-to-show anymore.” — Michele Bianchi Pingel
Still, she knows it’s possible to pull it off. Jennings is confident the Players will retain its audience even if the theater is forced into a nomadic existence while the new facility is constructed.
“For them, this is temporary, and their supporters will follow them wherever they’re at,” Jennings said.
A new facility is an opportunity for the Players to eliminate problems at the current venue.
Artistic Director Jeffery Kin says the theater, constructed in the early 1970s, is limiting from a creative standpoint.
“Right now, we have to put up our shows in a short two weeks,” Kin said. “In the new facility, we will be able to take our time to build.”
From a technical standpoint, things aren’t much better. Bianchi Pingel cites a variety of infrastructure issues, from air conditioning to aging seats, as a money hole she wasn’t interested in filling any more.
The tipping point may have been parking problems. The Players used a lot on Cocoanut Avenue for overflow parking, but once construction began on the CitySide apartment project, that space was off limits. The Players tried to work with the city on a solution but was unable to reach an acceptable compromise.
Despite the value of the land and the challenges on the building, the question remains: Why leave the city of Sarasota completely?
The Players has serious roots here. It prides itself on being the oldest performing arts organization in the region, originally moving to the city eight decades ago.
A lot of things have changed since 1936. Other theater-related organizations — the Van Wezel, Florida Studio Theatre, the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe — occupy space in close proximity to the Players’ home on Tamiami Trail.
“We’re all different, and yet, we’re in competition for butts in the seats and as choices for what to do,” Bianchi Pingel said. “Going out to Lakewood Ranch, for the second time in the Players’ lives, we’ll be the only game in town.”
Across the street from the Players’ property, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 is embarking on a planning effort that calls for an entire campus of arts organizations along the bayfront. Michael Klauber, the leader of Bayfront 20:20, said he hasn’t heard any concerns regarding the concentration of arts offerings in that area.
Jim Shirley, the executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, said he doesn’t see the move as a loss for the Sarasota arts scene. After all, the new theater will stay in Sarasota County.
Even as the move to Lakewood Ranch commences, the Players is committed to opening a new classroom space on Boulevard of the Arts as part of the Rosemary Square project in 2017.
The rest, the organization decided, is just better suited for someplace else. For Bianchi Pingel, the answer to the big question — “Why leave Sarasota?” — is ultimately a simple one.
“Our mission’s going to stay the same, but it’s going to allow for growth,” she said. “We can’t grow where we’re at, unfortunately.”