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Charlotte-Lee-Collier
Business Observer Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 9 months ago

Front Row Seat

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Two performing arts theaters in the region — one in Naples, one in Sarasota — seek expansive and exhilarating new homes. But first there are a host of obstacles, from location to financing.
by: Business Observer Staff Writer

By Mark Gordon and Grier Ferguson | Business Observer

Gulfshore Playhouse, Naples

Kristen Coury has directed a Hollywood movie, “Friends & Family.” (She has her own IMBD page for proof.) She's worked on plays and musicals worldwide. She's produced CDs, invested her own money in Broadway shows and launched and now runs a professional theater in Naples on the cusp of its 15-year anniversary.

Impressive as it is, Coury's theater and entertainment resume didn't prepare her for what turned out to be a command performance: Trying to find and buy land in downtown Naples for a new state-of-the-art home for Gulfshore Playhouse, the nonprofit theater Coury founded in 2004.

The quest took more than five years. Prime real estate in downtown Naples, due to rapid price escalation and a dearth of multi-acre sites, is harder to come by than “Hamilton” tickets, Coury learned in her search. “There were minimum opportunities to do a project like this in downtown Naples,” says prominent area developer and property owner Phil McCabe. “It's rare to find a piece of property like this.”

But late last year Coury and her Gulfshore Playhouse team finally claimed victory, when they bought a 3-acre tract in downtown Naples for $5.15 million. They purchased the land, at the northern end of The Shoppes at Naples Square, from Wheelock Capital. The Ronto Group, a development firm that's worked with Greenwich, Conn.-based Wheelock on other projects in Naples, is developing a mixed-use project on the site.

The theater and Wheelock had a deal in principal in 2015, but it fell apart, says Coury. The purchase came back together last year. “It was a long and arduous process,” Coury adds.

Up next: Turn the land into a top-notch professional theater and education complex.
It's a $45 million project Coury says can triple the Gulfshore Playhouse's capacity and propel it “into one of the premier regional theaters in the country.”

Plans for the new Gulfshore Playhouse complex include a 50,000-square-foot building on two acres and a 400-seat main-stage proscenium theater with sloped stadium seating, according to a statement. A separate studio theaterwill offer seating for more than 150 patrons and there will also be a grand airy lobby, bar, gardens and an exclusive patron lounge. (Gulfshore's current home, the Norris Community Center on Eighth Avenue South, has some 200 seats.)

Gulfshore Playhouse retained H3, a design studio within Arquitectonica, a global architecture firm that specializes in theaters and culture buildings, for the project. The firm's recent projects include the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Says Coury: “This will be an iconic building at the gateway to downtown.”

Coury believes the insides of the complex will likewise reshape the Gulfshore Playhouse. That includes adding large-cast musicals, world premiere comedies and dramas and more new works and fresh content created in conjunction with Broadway producers.

Coury envisions Gulfshore becoming something akin to La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, one of the more renowned theaters nationwide. After it's built, Coury says the theater will become a member in League of Resident Theatres — the highest professional designation for regional theaters. The organization currently has 75 members, including two in Florida: Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter and Florida Stuido Theatre in Sarasota.

Coury says the project is a natural extension of the growth at Gulfshore Playhouse, where more than 100,000 people have seen performances in the past decade. More recently, the theater's operating budget has grown 133%, from $1.5 million in fiscal 2015 to $3.5 million in fiscal 2018. “That's extraordinary explosive growth for a theater,” says Coury. “We've been embraced by the community.”

Coury hopes that love spreads to the $45 capital campaign for the new complex. Longtime Gulfshore Playhouse benefactors Patty and Jay Baker have donated a $10 million matching gift, and several others, including McCabe, have donated $1 million. Final architectural concepts for the project will be unveiled March 26, at the Bubbles, Baubles, and Broadway Gala at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples — which could lead to more donations. Says Coury: “We're really on our way.”

At A Glance

Gulfshore Playhouse
Year Revenue Growth
2015 $1.8 million
2016 $2.3 million 27.7%
2017 $2.8 million 21.7%
2018 $3.5 million 25%
Source: Gulfshore Playhouse

The Players Centre for Performing Arts, Sarasota

For The Players Centre for Performing Arts, the decision to move came down to weighing pros and cons.

Part of that was process included taking a hard look at other arts organizations in downtown Sarasota, says Managing Director and CEO Michelle Bianchi. The Players property, right off U.S. 41 facing the Bayfront, isn't the only performing arts venue in the area. There's also Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Florida Studio Theatre, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and Urbanite Theatre.

The abundance of theaters means there's lots of competition to get patrons in seats. That was one con.

Parking issues also led The Players to consider building a parking garage or using other nearby lots or garages and busing people to the theater. Bianchi approached Sarasota city officials about the options, but it didn't work out. Con No. 2.

Another major issue The Players wrestled with is an aging facility — con No. 3. Built in the early 1970s, Bianchi says it needs costly repairs. For the organization, she says the question became, “Do we want to continue dumping money into something that's not meeting our needs?”

Also, the organization knew it was sitting on a valuable piece of property — one of the last tracts with an unobstructed view of the bay in the area, with a front portion zoned for 18 stories. And The Players officials believed selling that prime location would provide a large sum of funds for a new theater.

With that in mind, The Players considered new locations. Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, based in east Manatee County, courted the organization to move east of downtown. SMR officials presented The Players an opportunity to be a centerpiece of a new Lakewood Ranch community, on the north Sarasota side of the development, called Waterside Place.

Lakewood Ranch, one of the fastest growing communities nationwide, provided an interesting option for The Players: It's an area that hasn't been saturated by performing arts with a demographic that could fill seats. So The Players moved forward.

In mid-January, The Players announced an agreement to sell its downtown property, in a deal that exceeded the $9.5 million listing price. Terms of the offer are confidential and a buyer wasn't identified in sale property records outside the LLCs.

The Players now has a plan to construct a new $30 million, multi-phase facility at Waterside Place. It's starting a capital campaign to raise additional funds, and Bianchi says the organization will also speak to banks about construction loans.

The new 4.5-acre Waterside site will allow The Players to build a 480-seat main stage auditorium; a 125-seat black box theater; a 100-seat cabaret theater with dining; and the main campus of the organization's education arm, The Arnold Simonsen Players Studio. It hasn't closed on the purchase of the land yet, but the contract price for the property is $750,000.

Last January, Bianchi and The Players Artistic Director Jeffery Kin went on a trip nationwide visiting other theaters to see how they broached a capital campaign. They learned valuable information, she says, including what not to do with different fundraising and construction decisions.

Overall, The Players path toward its new home is the result of a key consideration that returns the organization back to its purpose. Bianchi says: “As a community theater, we need to go where we're needed.”

At A Glance

The Players Centre for Performing Arts
Year Revenue %growth
2014 $1.2 million
2015 $1.3 million 8.3%
2016 $1.4 million 7.6%
2017 $1.8 million 28.5%
Source: The Giving Partner

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