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Lakewood Ranch lands The Players Theatre for Waterside

The Players plans to spend $8 million to $12 million for its new complex on 4.5 acres

The Players CEO Michelle Bianchi Pingel and Artistic Director Jeffery Kin announce their deal with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch on Monday.
The Players CEO Michelle Bianchi Pingel and Artistic Director Jeffery Kin announce their deal with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch on Monday.
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When Rex Jensen, the Schroeder-Manatee Ranch president and CEO, looked back upon previous efforts to bring an arts or cultural element to Lakewood Ranch, he surmised the time just hasn't been right.

The right time is now.

On May 2 at Michael's Wine Cellar in Sarasota, Players Theatre CEO Michelle Bianchi Pingel announced Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has forged a deal to bring The Players Centre For Performing Arts to the new Waterside at Lakewood Ranch development.

Bianchi Pingel said the current Players Theatre property, at 838 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, has been put on the market for $12.5 million. The 1.77-acre parcel has what Bianchi Pingel said is the "last unobstructed view of the bay."

The Players Theatre owns the property outright, so the money for the sale will be used to buy a 4.5-acre parcel and then to construct its complex in what will become Waterside's town center.

"This is the entertainment venue we've been longing for," Jensen said at the press conference to announce the deal. "This is going to spark our town center. It will add to the kind of lifestyle we offer."

Jensen said The Players Centre For Performing Arts was a perfect fit for the new community.

"We could have attracted a lot of (theaters) if we wanted to pay for everything," Jensen said. "This one is a premier theater that has been around for (86) years. It has viability and durability. It is gratifying for us to get this quality of an organization."

Bianchi Pingel 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 to $12 million, although an architect or builder has yet to be chosen. The new building, which Bianchi Pingel said would be approximately 55,000 square feet, will house a 480-seat main stage auditorium with balcony seating, a 125-seat "Black BoxTheatre," a 100-seat cabaret theatre that will serve lunch and dinner and the main campus of The Arnold Simonsen Players Studio, which is the education arm of the organization. The land will include 300 parking spaces.

Jensen said the deal makes sense because of Lakewood Ranch's growth. "We now have 24,000 residents on site," he said. "Lakewood Ranch is big now, 8 miles north and south, 6 miles east and west."

The Waterside addition is scheduled to add another 5,000 homes with people expected to start moving into the development in 2017. Kin said The Players hopes to complete the sale of its property along with the first phase of construction of the new theater in three years. The theater will continue production at its current site until the new owner needs to begin development.

Whether the theater can move the project along that quickly is not a huge concern for Jensen. "Everything takes longer than you think it should," Jensen said. "It took us 10 years to do Main Street. It is all a matter of their fortunes and capital."

The Players Theatre opened in 1930 with a series of one-act plays. It has been at its current site for 40 years and is the oldest community theater in Sarasota and the second oldest in Florida.

"Our mission will stay the same," Bianchi Pingel said. "We just want to allow for growth and we want to have more performances. We want to increase the classes at our school."

The new The Players Centre for Performing Arts already has joined the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance.

"This is going to round out an incredible community," said Heather Kasten, the executive director of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance. "The whole cultural piece of the puzzle was missing. It is a feather in Lakewood Ranch's cap and it is going to bring people to the community."

Moving to a spot so close to Interstate-75 was a huge plus for The Players board of directors when considering a move to Lakewood Ranch. Bianchi Pingel said Jensen presented a chart to her which showed driving times to the new theater. It was appealing that potential St. Petersburg and south Venice patrons could reach the theater in under 30 minutes.

She said a ZIP-code study of current patrons found that only 2.6% of them come from the barrier islands, 14.9% come from inside Sarasota's city limits and 28.5% came from the I-75 corridor. "So it was a no-brainer," she said.

Board trustee Mary Anne Servian, who is a former Sarasota mayor and city commissioner along with being a Players Theatre patron since 1996, said the move was a no-brainer. 

"I think the current patrons will be excited," Servian said. "The community will have a brand new facility. When you look at the demographics, with only 15% coming from the city of Sarasota, I think the move makes sense. Accessibility will be a big drawing card (in Lakewood Ranch). There is a lot of synergy with Lakewood Ranch."

Facility limitations caused The Players Theatre board to research the possibility of a move.

"Our current building was very sick," said Lyn Wiley, the facilities chair for The Players. "We would have had several million dollars worth of work to do."

Bianchi Pingel said it was a necessary move.

"We are property rich and cash poor," she said. "Our electrical is a nightmare, our air conditioning is going. In the 15 years I have been here, we have put as much money into this facility as we are going to do."

Players Artistic Director Jeffery Kin said a new air conditioning system would have cost $500,000 and the roof and the seats at the theater need to be replaced.

"And the massive construction going on has limited our parking," he said. "All roads pointed to us moving."

He said Lakewood Ranch will reap he rewards of having a community theater. "The job of the community theater in the world goes unnoticed. But it is the fabric which allows students and adults to express themselves. It creates better people."

It will also mean better productions, according to Kin. 

"Right now we have to put up our shows in a short two weeks," he said. "In the new facility, we will be able to take our time to build. Right now, we are incredibly constrained.

"It is just going to be an easier place to work toward our dream. We are creating the right environment with the right energy.

"People have asked, 'How could you possibly want to leave the cultural corridor?' Well, we helped form that cultural corridor The job of a community theater is to go where you are needed. We will be hoping to create a brand new arts destination. We will be at the forefront of a new arts scene."

He also announced the theater was starting a $25 million capital fundraising campaign.

The Players is hoping to get a huge boost through "naming rights" of the new theaters and the building. "Sarasota is a big naming town," Bianchi Pingel said.


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