Skip to main content
East County Monday, Mar. 28, 2022 3 months ago

SMR cancels The Players Centre theater project in Lakewood Ranch

Players CEO says smaller theater project was presented to SMR, but that was not accepted.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

In dramatic terms, the plan for a $30 million theater complex to house the The Players Centre of Performing Arts in Lakewood Ranch is dead.

Schroeder-Manatee Ranch issued a statement Monday, March 28 saying it has terminated its agreement with The Players to build a performing arts center in Waterside Place. The Players informed Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty, a subsidiary of SMR, that it was talking with the city of Sarasota about potentially relocating its operations to the Municipal Auditorium, at 801 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota.

The Players CEO William Skaggs stressed that his group is only in talks with the city of Sarasota and nothing has been agreed upon.

Skaggs said The Players presented a smaller theater complex plan to SMR, but that plan was rejected.

"The Players Centre has been evaluating the size and scope of the Lakewood Ranch project," Skaggs said. "The Players recently approached SMR with some ideas for a smaller project that did not include a traditional theater."

Skaggs said that while the project didn't come to fruition, The Players Centre would continue to bring productions to Lakewood Ranch.

"The Players is an invaluable asset to the region, and while we would have enjoyed its presence in Waterside Place, we believe the new location in Sarasota allows it to expeditiously return to its full programing and build for the future," said Kirk Boylston, president of Lakewood Ranch Commercial, in a release. "Now that Waterside Place is complete, activated and more than 80% leased, we are in a much better position to attract a highly impactful and complementary use that will serve our residents. We are just beginning the exploration process."

Skaggs hedged on his nonprofit's future during a Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance luncheon March 23.

"We are evaluating everything regarding our facilities," Skaggs said at the luncheon. "We are discussing our future plans as we move past the pandemic. We are taking a look at everything. We have to make sure it all fits together well and we have to figure out what works best."

CEO William Skaggs stands next to the empty lot that has been reserved for The Players at Waterside Place. (File photo)

Skaggs, who said in December he was working on a possible 5-year lease with Sarasota for the Municipal Auditorium, said the huge rise in construction costs during the pandemic has been problematic for any plans to build a new theater.

"It's insane," he said of rising costs.

SMR Senior Vice President Laura Cole said other arts possibilities would be considered for the hole left by the decision to part ways with The Players' Centre complex.

"Every community aspires to have have some kind of civic uses for the community," Cole said. "Arts enrich every day life. But does that need to be bricks and mortar?"

Cole said that with Lakewood Ranch's expansion into Sarasota County with Waterside, it is seen as being more part of a region. With Sarasota being heralded for its arts offerings, that regional art box could be checked already.

Lakewood Ranch has become the nation's No. 1-selling multigenerational community with its parks, open space and entertainment hubs, so the question becomes, "Does it need a huge theater?"

"That's a great question," Cole said. "We've never approached it from that perspective."

Cole said SMR has been focused on The Players occupying the space at Waterside Place but now the focus will shift to what's best in that spot now that the theater is not coming. 

After the Sarasota Observer reported in December that Skaggs had been talking with the Sarasota City Commission about signing up to a 5-year lease with a possible extension to use the Municipal Auditorium, Skaggs said The Players was still committed to building the new theater complex in Lakewood Ranch. He told the East County Observer in September the plan was in place to break ground on the Waterside Place theater complex in 2023.

It was May 2, 2016, when The Players announced it would leave its Sarasota theater to build a new complex in Lakewood Ranch. An intense fundraising campaign followed over the next couple years intended to get the Lakewood Ranch community to buy into the project. The two driving forces behind the campaign for a new theater complex were The Players CEO Michelle Bianchi, who resigned in April 2018, and The Players Artistic Director Jeffery Kin, who announced in September he was leaving the nonprofit.


Here is a look at the ups and downs of the failed project.


Former Artistic Director Jeffery Kin and Former CEO Michelle Bianchi spearheaded the early funding drive for The Players. (File photo)
The Announcement: May 2, 2016

At Michael's Wine Cellar in Sarasota, The Players CEO Michelle Bianchi announced Schroeder-Manatee Ranch had forged a deal to bring The Players Centre For Performing Arts to the new Waterside at Lakewood Ranch development. Bianchi said the current Players property, at 838 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, had been put on the market for $12.5 million. The Players owned the property outright, so the money for the sale would be used to buy a 4.5-acre parcel and then to construct its complex in what would become Waterside Place. Bianchi said The Players purchased the Waterside property for $750,000 and she estimated cost of construction of The Players Centre for Performing Arts to be between $8 million to $12 million. It would be approximately 55,000 square feet, housing a 480-seat main stage auditorium with balcony seating, a 125-seat "Black BoxTheatre," a 100-seat cabaret theater and The Arnold Simonsen Players Studio.


Architect, Builder Selected: Sept. 1, 2016

The Players Centre announced it had selected the team of Schenkel/Shultz and Westlake Reed and Leskowsky as the architects for its (now) $18 million Lakewood Ranch project and also selected Lakewood Ranch's Willis Smith Construction as the builder. CJ Fishman of Fishman & Associates, Inc., would be assisting as the food service consultant for the project.


Rift Begins to Form: May 4, 2017

The board of directors for The Players Centre for Performing Arts announced it would lower the asking price of its current theater at 838 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota from $12.5 million to $9.5 million. Players CEO Michelle Bianchi had asked the board to be patient with its $12.5 million listing but the board voted for the lower price.


Major Gift Presented: June 9, 2017

The Community Foundation of Sarasota County, on behalf of the Muriel O'Neil Fund of the Performing Arts, announced a $1 million gift to The Players Centre for Performing Arts, and CEO Michelle Bianchi noted, "This is not a pipe dream."


When the nonprofit saw it would have trouble raising $30 million for the project, The Players Centre went to a phased design. (File rendering)
Changes on the Way: Jan. 25, 2018

After The Players sold its Sarasota theater for $9.5 million, Kirk Boylston, the president of Lakewood Ranch Commercial, noted that construction of Waterside Place was going full-speed ahead whether or not The Players were ready to begin construction on its planned $30 million theater complex. Bianchi said, "They are not going to have the missing tooth." Bianchi said The Players would go to financial institutions to find out ways it could leverage the money from its theater sale. She said The Players would build its theater complex in three $10 million phases. Phase one would include a 100-seat cabaret theater with dining and would be the main campus of The Arnold Simonsen Players Studio, which is the education arm of the organization. Bianchi said the first phase would constitute one side of the complex, so the next two phases would flow off the side of the existing structure on the 4.5-acre lot.


Players CEO Resigns: April 25, 2018

The Players CEO Michelle Bianchi, the driving force behind the planning of the theater complex in Waterside Place, resigned because she said she wasn't happy with the board's direction. She had been with The Players 17 years. and became CEO in 2008. She proposed the idea for a new theater in 2015. Board chair Donna DeFant took over Bianchi's duties until a replacement was named.


More Downsizing: June 7, 2018

Players Chair Donna DeFant talked about the newest twist in construction of the new facility, saying The Players would build the 488-seat main theater and the outside shell of the complex, and then piecemeal the remaining major aspects, including a 125-seat Black Box theater and a 100-seat cabaret, for approximately $21 million. It would go from the originally planned 81,000 square feet to 76,000 square feet.


Jeffery Kin announced in September he was leaving as creative director of The Players. (File photo)
Plans Still in Place: Sept. 15, 2021

The Players CEO William Skaggs said plans were firmly in place to move the Waterside Place theater project forward with a groundbreaking planned for the spring of 2023. Skaggs said the project, which had been presented to him as $32 million or more when he arrived in September, 2020, had been reduced to $26.5 million. He said The Players had $6.3 million in funding toward the project. The earliest possible opening for the theater complex would be 2025.


Another Direction: Dec, 2, 2021

The Players CEO William Skaggs said he had begun conversations with Sarasota city officials about the Players holding shows and training sessions at the Municipal Auditorium. The city staff was looking into a possible 5-year lease with an option to extend. At the time, Skaggs said The Players still was committed to building a theater complex at Waterside Place.


Project Canceled: March 28, 2022

Schroeder-Manatee Ranch releases a notice saying it had terminated its agreement with The Players Centre to build a Waterside Place theater complex plan.

Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.

Related Stories