Arts Help Develop Sense Of Community

At its Fogarty-forever seediest, Tampa’s hardscrabble maritime district was still home to an eclectic handful of urban pioneers – mostly of the artistic persuasion.

When it became apparent that this warehouse – now Channel — district was morphing into a tony, de facto downtown where people – thousands of them – would actually live, some key questions were begged. Could the resultant condo enclave, dotted with lofts and town homes, remain reasonably scaled? Could some sense of community be retained – or forged? And what of the artists? Should they wait for Godot or Soho?

Plans for the (two 30-story) Towers of Channelside and (two 41-story towers of) Pinnacle Place are reminders, notably the former, of controversy and pragmatic compromise.

Plans of a residential developer to set aside prime space for artistic use is another reminder. In this case – it bespeaks of an encouraging community scenario born of pragmatism, creativity and enlightened self interest.

Next month developer Ken Stoltenberg’s 392-unit condominium, Grand Central at Kennedy, will break ground on 12-story and 15-story buildings in the Channel District. According to Stoltenberg, he has firm contracts on at least 340 pre-sold units at Channelside Drive and Kennedy Boulevard. The price range is $140,000 to $599,000.

But those aren’t the numbers drawing the biggest attention right now.

Stoltenberg, a co-equity partner in Mercury Advisors (with Luxembourg-based Frank Bombeeck), already has set aside some 4,500 square feet of space for Stageworks Theater Company plus another 2,000 for a visual arts gallery to be managed by Artists Unlimited. Stageworks, seen by many as a community catalyst, has a 20-year lease and a 20-year option.

The gratis space was the creative upshot of input from the Channel District Council and give-and-take that ensued from the city’s rezoning-approval process on height restrictions.

Stageworks well

“We looked around,” recalled Stoltenberg, “and Stageworks worked best for us. It had a lot of performances. That can help all the retail and restaurants. It will create footsteps. We put this in our numbers from day one. We just assumed a contribution loss leader.”

From the perspective of the city’s creative industries manager, Paul Wilborn, this is a seminal event for the arts as well as the fast-forwarding Channel District.

“This is both very generous – and very smart,” assesses Wilborn. “Developers in other cities have realized the value of the arts in promoting their properties. Ken gets that.

“What he is adding are amenities for his potential buyers,” Wilborn says. “He sees it. It’s part of his selling package. I give him tons of credit.”

Wilborn also accords him kudos for the lease arrangement.

“In order to apply for arts grants, you have to show at least a 20-year lease,” points out Wilborn. “That’s a real philanthropic move.”

According to Wilborn, “This can only help the Channel District, which has been sort of an artistic neighborhood. I mean Victory Lofts was referencing (artist) Jeff Whipple as an amenity.”

For Stageworks, the regional, not-for-profit, professional theater company that has been producing exclusively for the Tampa Bay region since its founding 22 years ago, Stoltenberg’s variation on an enlightened self-interest theme will be a godsend. For all its well-earned reputation – from staging classics and contemporary plays, including world premieres, to performing for public school students and indigent seniors – Stageworks has never had a permanent home.

Its itinerant history includes performance stints at the University of Tampa’s Falk Theater, Hillsborough Community College (Ybor City), the Italian Club, the Gorilla Theater and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Finding rehearsal space has been an ongoing, ad hoc adventure.

Anna Brennen, the outspoken founder and producing director of Stageworks, minces no words about the fallout from Stoltenberg’s commitment.

“Bless his angelic heart,” says Brennen. “What he has given us legitimizes our existence. He has given us a place we can be identified with – instead of ‘Where are they now?’ Our audience has a hard time following us around.”

The implications for the Channel District, per se, are no less dramatic, says Brennen, known as “drama mama” in theater circles.

“To be able to build an ensemble with playwrights

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