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Growth plan takes center stage

The venue looks to Clearwater for seed money to help it bring in more acts and create more educational programs for children.

Published September 10, 2006

CLEARWATER - For more than two decades, thousands of performers have traveled through the famed doors of Ruth Eckerd Hall, entertaining millions.

But officials with the arts center say they can do better. They want to bring in more acts and they want to bring the acts to the schools. They also want to create more educational programs for children, and offer more assistance to students aspiring to find a career in the arts.

To do this, though, the center will probably need the city's help.

"We think that art makes for a stronger community and connection - it develops stronger bonds," said Robert Freedman, who oversees the theater. "Arts education has been the hall's commitment since it opened in 1983."

Ruth Eckerd Hall has put together a five-year $2.5-million plan that would help expand classes, increase partnerships and build audiences.

Hall officials say the move will help as many as 100,000 children and students participate in arts-related projects or attend live performances.

The center would like the city to provide $900,000 in seed money over the next three years, a request Freedman says should spur other donations and help secure state grants.

The city typically gives the center about $475,000 each year, but the City Council did sign off recently for an extra $300,000 in the upcoming fiscal year.

The venue also gets funding from private donations, ticket sales and program fees.

Here's a look at five key areas the center would like to broaden:

- Arts activities: Bring more performers into programs and community, commission new works and book more events.

- Improve education: Expand current programs like "Arts & Medicine" where they bring events to local hospitals; create more family shows that encourage reading; and create satellite programs.

- Additional amenities/facility improvements: Update technology and offer more advantages to members as a way to increase membership donation.

- Increase partnerships with Pinellas County schools: Establish a teacher training lab to develop ways to include arts into the regular curriculum; and provide money for transportation and ticket costs to the schools.

- Increase pay in the arts industry: Help better train students through scholarships; create art training classes; and form partnerships with local colleges so the students could get credit hours by participating in those classes.

The plans, in part, are a response from a city-led "visioning process," where Clearwater leaders asked the public what they want in the city's future. Most of the residents placed arts and recreation high on the list.

Joyce B. Wehner, the hall's director of education, said residents generally want stronger schools, accessible cultural experience and ways to celebrate all the cultures that exist in the city.

This new money will help, she said.

"We want to work with the schools and get arts education back into children's lives on a regular basis," said Wehner, who has been with the hall for seven years.

A majority of the City Council, citing recent successes at the center, approved the additional funding.

Council member Carlen Petersen said the operation would use the money to "parlay it into something bigger."

"The payback for the community and the kids is immense," she said.

A few years ago, Ruth Eckerd Hall received $2-million from Penny for Pinellas to help renovate the venue and complete an education wing for it, said Freedman, president of PACT, the nonprofit organization that oversees the operation. That spurred $22-million more in state grants and private donations.

"That was the catalyst we needed and we hope this helps raise money for these projects," Freedman said. "We just need some bridge money to get the funding started."

[Last modified September 10, 2006, 07:03:14]

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