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Revised plot for The Players' move to Lakewood Ranch

Board chair talks about updated plans for Waterside Place.

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It was May 2, 2016, and the Players Centre for the Performing Arts announced its plans to build a $30 million theater complex in the new Lakewood Ranch community of Waterside.

Suffice to say, not even those connected with The Players thought it would be accomplished without a few twists and turns.

On June 7, Players Chair Donna DeFant sat at the current theater in Sarasota and talked about the newest twist in construction of the new facility.

DeFant said The Players will 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.

Construction cost is estimated at $21 million.

Back in 2016, Players CEO and Managing Director Michelle Bianchi was hoping the entire theater could be built at once, based on a selling price of $12.5 million for the current theater, naming rights and fundraising. Over the next year, it became apparent the entire $30 million might be a tough get, and Bianchi announced a new plan had been set up to build the theater in three $10 million phases, with the cabaret being built first. Bianchi said The Players wouldn't be "the missing tooth" when Waterside Place opens for business in 2020.

Players Chair Donna DeFant visits with Elliott Raines of Two Chairs Theatre Company and Pam Wiley, a Players director, during a fundraiser Feb. 10 at Lakewood Ranch Country Club.
Players Chair Donna DeFant visits with Elliott Raines of Two Chairs Theatre Company and Pam Wiley, a Players director, during a fundraiser Feb. 10 at Lakewood Ranch Country Club.

Then on April 25, Bianchi resigned, citing the fact she was unhappy with the direction of the nonprofit. It was a surprising announcement since The Players had sold its current theater for $9.5 million and picked up a $1 million grant from the Muriel O'Neil Fund of the Performing Arts through the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

On June 7, DeFant said the 120-day due diligence period for sale of the current theater had expired. Although the buyer has yet to be identified, DeFant said she was confident the sale would close on July 7 as scheduled.

Then The Players will find out the buyer's plans and whether they will need to move immediately.

The sale will allow The Players to pursue financing for the new theater complex's first phase.

"It does make sense," Players Artistic Director Jeffery Kin said of building the main theater first. "It will give us more naming opportunities, so it seems logical," he said. "We can also begin to engage other arts partners. It's a win-win for everyone."

Kin said it will be easier to fundraise with the main theater operating. He said building the main theater first could eventually save The Players millions of dollars.

DeFant said Waterside Place developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch had offered The Players use of one of its buildings adjacent to the complex to build one of the smaller theaters. DeFant said the offer was much appreciated, but the board felt it wasn't feasible.

"SMR has been very generous," DeFant said. "And they have been very flexible."

In its original announcement of the move, The Players was going to occupy a 5-acre parcel in Waterside Place. DeFant said the parcel is 4.5 acres now and the complex itself, originally 81,000 square feet, now will be 76.000 square feet.

"We've done a little downsizing," he said.

The first phase will include a front lobby and an event plaza, but DeFant said the planned large video board in front of the theater might have to wait.

She said SMR was building a three-story parking garage which could be used by the theater's patrons. She said SMR has agreed to take care of the maintenance of the grounds to keep the landscaping cohesive with the rest of Waterside Place.

Schenkel/Shultz and Westlake Reed and Leskowsky are the architects for the project while Willis Smith Construction is the builder. DeFant said the original design for the project remains basically intact.

While construction plans move forward, DeFant said the board has put a search for a new CEO and managing director on hold until at least the fall. She said the emphasis for now will be to hire a development/capital campaign executive to raise funds.

Kin said he has some good leads on a temporary home for The Players if the theater needs one between the time it must move out of its current home until it can occupy the new theater.

In the meantime, Kin said The Players will continue to consider opportunities to perform in the Lakewood Ranch area. He said Legend of Sleepy Hollow will return to the Sarasota Polo Club on Oct. 17 through Oct. 20. If the property, which is on the market, sells, he said he hopes the new owners would continue to host the production. He said The Players would like to build an entire festival around the production.

Likewise, The Players' children's reading program, STAR, is looking for a host site in the Lakewood Ranch area. It currently is hosted by the Sarasota Polo Club.

Kin said, "We have a couple of other projects in the works" for Lakewood Ranch.

For now, The Players executives are trying to prepare for a variety of scenarios. "We are dealing with all the what ifs," Kin said. "We would like to be prepared."


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