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Financial drama snares theater project

By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002

Maybe the black dress was an omen.

At least that's what Barbara Friedman, who wore it to the Dade City Commission meeting last week, is wondering now.

She and the others who dream of restoring the old Crescent Theatre hope that meeting wasn't the death knell for the project, which would fill a performing arts void in an area of known more for rodeos than Shakespeare.

City Commission members listened politely as supporters pleaded for more cash to match a $500,000 grant that will slip away on Saturday. But it's a tough year, and commission members face demands for higher police and firefighter pay, as well as the cost of improving a decaying City Hall.

They made no move to tap a $2-million reserve fund.

"Delaying this another year is just a heartbreak," Friedman said after commissioners offered encouragement but no addition to the $15,000 they already pledged.

The appeal to the City Commission on Tuesday was a last-ditch effort to obtain enough money for the $1-million project, which would be connected to a senior center already planned. County commissioners already had balked at the idea of dipping into the tourism tax money. That's understandable, as the law requires that money to be spent on projects that would draw visitors.

A state cultural affairs grant would provide half the money needed for the theater. Supporters have spent the past four years seeking private donations that totaled more than $200,000 but are about $300,000 short. That they tried to raise the money on their own before seeking help from the government is commendable.

But this is what happens in towns without big corporations or a George Steinbrenner. In larger cities, companies fight for naming rights to such amenities. But here, businesses are small, and those that are larger are satellite offices that spend most of their charitable dollars where they are headquartered.

Supporters have held a host of fundraisers, including a Roaring '20s gala and a luncheon with some Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The committee even put on a screening for The Bat, a silent movie that played in the Crescent Theatre.

The largest donor was TECO, which chipped in $25,000.

In a better economy, donations might have come more easily.

"This year, it's been "My goodness, I can't,"' Friedman said.

A genteel piano teacher from Birmingham, Friedman has chafed at the lack of a performing arts venue on the county's east side.

Her voice cringes as she tells of talent shows and concerts in school cafeterias and American Legion halls.

The only thing that resembles an auditorium is an old one at Pasco Middle School, with broken, uncomfortable seats.

"Some senior citizens practically refuse to come back," she said. "It has hard, wooden seats that are angled all wrong."

Because the arts have no home, there also is no home for equipment.

A Yamaha grand piano has to be hauled to different performance sites, and it costs several hundred dollars per move.

Wesley Chapel High School has a state of the art auditorium, but user fees are hefty, Friedman said. A popular children's talent show that has drawn entrants from other counties will be moved there, but that means ticket prices likely will rise from the current $5.

With the grant deadline looming, supporters are refusing to give up. They're busy preparing paperwork just in case some well-heeled benefactor does step forward.

If no one comes through, a situation that is looking more and more likely, the committee is leaving the theater's fate in the donors' hands.

Contributors will have the option of a refund of their donation, or can give the money to the organizations sponsoring the project: the Heritage Arts Center Foundation or Community Aging & Retirement Services Inc. Or they may give supporters permission to hang onto the money in hopes that by next August, the $300,000 can be raised.

"We feel bad holding onto people's money so long," Friedman said.

But in a community with few big donors, it takes longer to raise money for big projects. The Crescent Theatre, at least right now, is a better investment than the stock market. And unlike WorldCom, there's not the first whiff of fraud.

Supporters have come too close to bury the dream now. Please be patient.

-- Lisa Buie is the editor of the central/east edition of the Pasco Times. You can reach her at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com.

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