City expected to approve funding items related to Capitol Theatre renovation

Anticipation builds as the theater is slated to reopen Dec. 18
CLEARWATER—The city council is expected this week to approve a pair of agenda items regarding funds for the Capitol Theatre improvement project, just in time for its “re-grand opening.”
During a Monday workshop, council members consented on two items related to the estimated $10.5 million renovation and expansion of the historic venue on Cleveland Street downtown. The breakdown of the project's cost includes nearly $8 million in renovations and nearly $2.5 million for the city's purchases of the former Royalty Theatre and the adjoining Lokey building in 2008 and an adjacent building to the east, which housed a café, in 2012.
The project knocked out the walls of the old Lokey building that adjoined with the theater and extended the back of the theater.
One agenda item is a request to approve an agreement between the city and the state's Division of Cultural Affairs for a cultural facilities grant in the amount of $1 million.
“This item just accepts the grant that we previously applied for,” Parks and Recreation administrative official Felicia Leonard told the council. “It's a matching grant. … We're ready to submit the paperwork to the state for reimbursement.”
As expected, there was no opposition to the request.
“Any questions about receiving the money? Everybody happy with that?” Councilman Paul Gibson asked, somewhat rhetorically. “That's definitely consent, right?”
The second item concerns the transfer of funds earmarked for the Capitol Theatre's parent company, Ruth Eckerd Hall, Inc., in fiscal year 2014-15 to help with the theater's renovation project this year.
The second amendment to the Capitol Theatre Operating Agreement allows for the transfer of $500,000 in Penny for Pinellas sales tax funds from the Capital Improvement Program to the Capitol Theatre budget.
According to city documents, the money was allocated as a contingency for the construction of the theater with the intention of putting any of the remaining funds towards Ruth Eckerd Hall.
But a recent request from theater officials forced the city to rethink the allocation.
“We received a letter from Ruth Eckerd Hall, Inc. requesting the use of a contingency fund set aside in 2014-15 in the CIP to be used for the Capitol Theatre this year,” Leonard explained.
The request came as little surprise to city officials.
“Is anybody surprised? Because I'm not,” Gibson asked. “I think we're all in agreement that this is what we've decided.”
The council is expected to vote on those items during its regularly scheduled meeting tonight.
Capitol Theatre readies for premiere
Singer Michael McDonald is scheduled to play at the venue's opening night Dec. 18. Other acts slated for this month are the comedian Sinbad, the musical group Rockapella's holiday show and blues legend B.B. King.
When the 92-year-old, Mediterranean-style venue shut down this year, it had 450 seats and a fairly simple layout, according to The Tampa Tribune. When the cinema-turned-concert-venue reopens , it will have 737 seats, six new loge boxes, an outdoor wraparound balcony, an extended room for mingling and a rooftop terrace and bar, which will be named after Frenchy's, the popular Clearwater Beach seafood restaurant owned by Michael Preston.
The venue's original auditorium and aesthetics, namely its art deco classicism, will remain.
Some of the Lokey building's dark brown bricks are still visible on the west side of the building's interior. Some bear the names of World War I soldiers that were written in white paint on the first observance of Armistice Day in 1919, before the original theater was built. The bricks that couldn't be left in place will be displayed at the Clearwater Main Library. The care required to remove those bricks was one of the project's unknown cost overruns.
The three buildings, nearly a century old, involved in the project have been plagued with structural surprises, contributing to an increase in unanticipated expenses. More than a dozen were found during the demolition phase of the project, including the discovery of a historical register of names behind one wall. The unexpected overruns have cost nearly $800,000.
Ruth Eckerd Hall President and CEO Zev Buffman previously said that downtown's proposed “leading anchor” has been plagued by “expensive, disruptive and time-consuming surprises.”
Established in 1921, the structure, complete with a large mezzanine and furnishings reminiscent of a classic Hollywood theater, is one of the oldest operating theaters in Florida. It reportedly had its beginnings as a vaudeville theater and movie house.
Gazette editor Jane Bongo contributed to this story.
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