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Editorials

Straz Performing Arts Center a vital resource for the people

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 12:11 PM

The Straz Center for the Performing Arts is celebrating its 25th anniversary, an occasion that merits attention for more than the facility's popular plays, musicals and other entertainment.

The center, with an estimated annual economic impact of $110 million, powerfully illustrates the benefits of investing strategically in bettering the community.

Those quick to deride any public expenditure should consider the success of the center, which Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn credits with beginning the "metamorphosis" of downtown. It sparked additional development, strengthened the city's business climate and has proved popular with people of all incomes.

The center probably never would have been built without the courage of former Mayor Bob Martinez, who supported public financing of the center even after voters rejected a penny sales tax, a portion of which would have been used for the complex.

Martinez, later elected governor, understood the center would serve the public and improve a city badly lacking in cultural amenities.

He also made sure it was a public-private partnership. Donors, led by the late TECO executive H.L. Culbreath and the late Chester Ferguson of Lykes, raised more than $11 million before the city approved the bond issue. The $57 million Performing Arts Center was completed in 1987. Private donations since have funded expansions and improvements. The city, county and state do provide annual support for operations and programs.

The center also demonstrates how a public venue can be run with private sector vigor. Center President/CEO Judy Lisi faced more than a $3 million deficit when she took over in 1992, after the center initially had trouble attracting crowds with sometimes esoteric performances.

She quickly changed the center's offerings and finances. She booked Broadway plays and popular performers, while still finding a place on the schedule for acts with a more limited audience. It has run in the black every year since.

"There's no science to it," she says of the center's success. "You have to learn about your community. You can't just force things on them. People will accept different things over time, but they have to discover them for themselves."

The key is to interest people in the performing arts, something Lisi and her team have done impressively. It now attracts more than 600,000 visitors a year and is the largest performing art center south of the Kennedy Center.

Over the years, the center expanded from three theaters to five, added three restaurants and a catering service. The Straz Center even qualifies as the largest retailer in downtown.

And in 2004, the Patel Conservatory was opened at the center, which educates children in music, theater and dance. Including classes, fields and programming, the Straz facility educates more than 60,000 students a year.

So the Straz Center for the Performing Arts' 25th anniversary is notable. The facility once derided as being a costly retreat for the elite has proved itself a self-sufficient resource for the people and a wise investment in every way.

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