LEE ARTS & COMMUNITY CENTER: $5 million renovation being considered for facility

Jul. 30, 2014 @ 06:04 PM

The Lee County Arts and Community Center could soon undergo up to $5 million in renovations and additions, with a goal of turning it from an underutilized asset into a go-to space for concerts, plays, weddings, family reunions and more.

"Without much work, this could be one of the best spaces in this part of the state," architect Steve Schuster said Tuesday night at a meeting of interested citizens and members of the building's board of trustees.

Schuster's firm, Clearscapes, was hired by the board to come up with a vision of what the building could look like in the future, what functions it could serve, and how much it will all cost. On Tuesday he presented three plans, ranging from $3 million for fairly spartan work to $5 million for an extravagant overhaul of the building at 507 N. Steele St., the former Sanford High School campus.

The idea is to fix the privately held community center up enough that it would attract more and bigger-name productions than currently visit the stage. This year, the center has generally hosted two shows a month. Schuster said it has a good location, a solid foundation and a new roof and air conditioning system that all are strengths.

But it does need more bathrooms, he said, and both the gym and auditorium need to be renovated. All that would cost around $1.5 million. He said to add in another $1.4 million to add or expand a lobby, stairs, elevators and other public spaces. Higher costs would come from things like building an expanded lobby, adding a wing to the stage to accommodate larger and fancier productions, and adding a catering space downstairs in the gym for weddings or other gatherings.

David Winslow, a fundraising expert, said he believes it would be possible to raise enough money locally to go the more opulent route. But he cautioned that just raising money for construction won't be enough.

"You open this space up and you need to heat it, you need to light it, you need to staff it," he said. "I think you should go for broke. But you shouldn't without a business a plan."

Part of the business plan is contingent on the passage of a $5 million bond during November's election to renovate the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. If voters approve that bond, tax rates could increase. But it could also pay for Sanford Mayor Chet Mann's vision of turning the civic center into a convention center focused more on business meetings than on entertainment.

"There's 500 conventions we don't get a year because we don't have the space for it," said Mann, who is also chairman of the community center's board of directors. He said if the civic center switched its focus, the community center could pick up many of the groups and events that now meet at the civic center.

Schuster agreed. He also said that since the gym and theater are on separate floors, they could potentially be rented out at the same time to maximize profit. The auditorium can seat 400 and the gym floor can hold 200 or 250 people, depending on how crowded organizers want to go.

Schuster also said his remodeling plan goes to great lengths not to interfere with the various nonprofits which are paying to rent offices in the front of the building. Kevin Brown, who manages the building's day-to-day operations, said he keeps those rents low since they're all charities or other non-profits, but that they do help pay the bills.

"If the Temple [Theatre] is dark, they're not making any money, and same with the civic center," Brown said. "When we're dark, we're still making money."

Chris deLambert, the marketing and business director at Temple Theatre who is also running for a seat on the Lee County Board of Commissioners, said Temple's board of directors could agree to help the Arts and Community Center instead of trying to compete. Temple Theatre turns away many acts every year, deLambert said, either because of timing or because groups can't afford Temple's rates, and they could send those acts to the community center.

Mann — whose grandfather, Tommy Mann Sr. led the effort to save the old high school from demolition and turn it into the community center — said he's excited for the future if the civic center turns into a business destination and the arts and community center is able to establish a steadier schedule of entertainment in a nicer atmosphere.

"In this case, we would be stronger just by having more venues and events," he said. "And Sanford would become a place you go to see the arts."