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Sarasota CEO's love of a challenge not an act

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

William Skaggs has taken over at CEO of the Players Centre for Performing Arts.
William Skaggs has taken over at CEO of the Players Centre for Performing Arts.
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As William Skaggs stood in the center of the future Waterside Place Sept. 26 and talked about his new organization's task of raising $30 million to build The Players Center for Performing Arts in Lakewood Ranch, his voice was drown out by power tools.

Those tools, however, were not working on The Players' theater complex. They were going about the business of constructing the interior of future restaurants and shops.

Those restaurants and shops are just about finished now ... except for their future tenants' build-outs ... with Waterside Place on schedule for a partial opening next spring.

The theater complex, meanwhile, has not been ready to announce its groundbreaking, let alone a target date for opening. Could the theater complex be in business in 2023? No one's talking.

That could change soon because there's a new CEO in town.

When Michelle Bianchi resigned as the Players' CEO in April of 2018, no knee-jerk reaction followed. Board chair Donna DeFant headed operations for a nonprofit that was headed for massive changes. The CEO was gone, board members had shifted, its current theater was up for sale, plans had been made for the move to Lakewood Ranch, and on and on.

The board decided to take time to assess The Players' needs for a leader, before conducting a thorough search.

Meanwhile, the months have passed, the Players' Sarasota theater sold and Waterside Place took shape.

Then the Players found Skaggs, who had been working as the chief development and outreach coordinator for the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center in Bowling Green, Ky. Before that task, which he accepted in 2016, he had worked for 12 years in institutional advancement at Western Kentucky University.

In other words, Skaggs was used to raising money for significant arts projects that were part of multi-use developments.

"He brings an entire tool box of knowledge we need," said Jeffery Kin, the Players' artistic director who has shared some of the CEO duties while the position was vacant. "He has gone through the steps."

Kin was talking about the steps of raising money and building a new venue.

"He can focus on the new space," Kin said. "And I can focus on the creative stuff. Obviously, this is a great thing for the theater."

Skaggs, who was announced as the Players' CEO on Sept. 17, doesn't mind the challenge of being the next great thing for the Players. His research told him he was boarding a quality ship that had been sailing for more than 90 years. His introduction to the Waterside at Lakewood Ranch project left him in awe.

It doesn't bother him that the future Players Centre site is a dirt parking lot for the Willis Smith Construction trailer that serves as the headquarters to the Waterside Place project. There is not so much as a theater stake in the ground.

Skaggs looked down the main street of the Waterside Place hub rising all around him. Then he glanced off to his left, taking in the lake, an unoccupied shoreline and acres of open fields.

He was smiling.

"Look in this direction," he said, pointing toward the open fields. "There is an immense amount of work to be done. This area continues to grow. If this area was shrinking, this job would not be nearly as attractive. All this focus is on Waterside, this entirely new southern section of Lakewood Ranch that's unbuilt. This is the opportunity to be on the ground floor of the continued growth of this area.

"But we've got a huge task in front of us."

It is an ominous task. The Players sold its Sarasota theater for $9.5 million in 2018 but no huge donations toward the new complex have been announced since as it is going through the "silent" phase of its fundraising campaign.

Perhaps the hiring of Skaggs means the theater complex project will shift into a higher gear.

He said he feels no external pressure to speed up the process of building the new theater. He said the established value of the theater will make the needed funding a reality.

"I have found an organization that is beloved by so many people," he said of the Players. "In a community with so much emphasis on the arts, the Players stands out. This is a gem."

Although the pandemic has made face to face fundraising meetings difficult, he said nationally philanthropy is up and that COVID-19 has caused many people to consider things that add value to their lives.

If someone wants to talk about how the theater can add value to their lives, or their community, he will listen.

After all, it's his community now, too, along with his wife, Jenny, and his children, 13-year-old Ben, 11-year-old Madeline, and 8-year-old Julianne.

He might even end up in one of Kin's productions. Besides his master's degree in accounting, he holds a bachelor's degree in music.

"This is head and heart for me," he said of his current task. "It's something I've loved."


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