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    Theater wants to buy land for playhouse expansions

    Francis Wilson Playhouse leaders say they would feel better about expansion plans if they owned the land.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

    CLEARWATER -- For nearly 70 years, volunteers have staged community theater productions at Francis Wilson Playhouse on Clearwater's waterfront.

    Now, playhouse leaders want to expand the theater. But first they want to buy the land the theater sits on at 302 Seminole St. from the city.

    "We're asking if we can buy the land under us for future generations," said Lillian Washabau, president of the playhouse board of directors. "We would feel more comfortable, and we would feel more like surging ahead."

    The theater company has leased just under an acre from the city since 1935.

    Interim City Manager Bill Horne said the city has not made a decision and intends to talk with theater representatives to get a better understanding of their objectives. The sale would require a City Commission vote.

    The theater group dreams of raising the theater roof to add spotlights and a balcony, and building a new costume room. But theater leaders say they are hesitant to make such costly investments when they could lose the property when the lease expires in 2034.

    An appraisal last year valued the property at $250,000, said playhouse general manager Buzz Dawson, and the theater has the money to buy it.

    City Attorney Pam Akin said it is possible for the city to declare the property surplus and allow interested buyers to bid on it. The problem, she said, is that the property value would be low because the theater has a lease on it for the next 33 years.

    "I don't know that we would ever do that," Akin said. "All we could really get for it is the value of the property with the 33-year lease, which is going to be essentially nothing."

    The city has to make sure it gets a fair return on the land, Akin said.

    The land is in a prime spot of what has been called Clearwater's "Gold Coast" in the historic Old Clearwater Bay neighborhood. Developers have set their sights on the bayfront stretch, and plans are under way for expensive high-rise condos along the water north of downtown.

    The theater has asked the city about buying the land in the past, Dawson said, but the discussions never went anywhere.

    "If we can't buy it from them, we have to think about moving," Dawson said.

    The theater was founded in 1930 as the Little Theatre of Clearwater. In 1935, the city leased the Seminole Street land to the organization for $1 a year for 99 years so a new playhouse could be built. The theater was named for Francis Wilson, a noted Broadway actor and playwright who spent winters in Clearwater.

    Run almost entirely by volunteers, the Francis Wilson Playhouse has a $150,000 annual budget.

    About 14,000 people a year see shows in the 182-seat theater. Most of the theatergoers are elderly residents and winter residents from Clearwater, Dunedin and Largo, Dawson said.

    "We've been doing quite well," Dawson said. "We started selling out last season, and it's gone right through until now."

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