WINTER HAVEN – According to a recent Ritz Theatre grant application to the City of Winter Haven, supporters are trying to re-open the historic downtown theater with daily events as early as January.
The theater closed several months ago after running out of money to put on shows and pay staff. A local judge removed the board and appointed retired Judge Charles Davis to take over operations and decide whether to keep running the theater as a non-profit or sell it to the highest bidder.
The largest obstacle to making that decision is a lien between the former Ritz board and former manager Stella Heath. According to the lien and court documents, Heath was not paid regularly for years before she resigned and that she is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the lien is determined to be a legal debt, Judge Davis said that could mean the theater would have to be foreclosed and sold to the highest bidder. The judge said it could be spring or summer of 2019 before that answer is known.
Judge Davis said the mortgage interest on the theater is scheduled to “balloon” in March. He wants to refinance the mortgage to avoid an interest boost. In early November the judge filed court documents alleging the lien be thrown out because it is not a valid debt.
Benjamin Webster of the law firm Morgan and Morgan represents Stella Heath and is asking for a trial to settle the lien debt question but there are no hearings currently scheduled.
Supporters of the Ritz have already donated around $5K cash and the development firm of Six/Ten has pledged a matching grant of $10K to try and help to re-open the theater.
“I am in contact with Charles Davis to discuss immediate needs to see if we need to create a second campaign,” Six/Ten Partner Joe Bogdahn said.
On Nov. 26, the Winter Haven City Commission approved $10K of taxpayer funds to help get the theater ready to re-open. According to the grant application, the theater owed around $10K for their annual insurance and around $9K to get the fire suppression system up to code. Every day the theater remains closed, mortgage and utility costs are adding up.
According to the grant application, Theatre Winter Haven staff have agreed to help organize events. Theatre Winter Haven Producing Director Dan Chesnicka said the theater would focus 80 percent on cultural events and 20 percent on renting the space out for weddings and other events. Chesnicka said there would be bingo nights, dueling pianos, tribute shows, family movie nights, karaoke, Gospel brunches and other daily events.
If the theater is foreclosed, the $10K in taxpayer dollars would end up not serving its purpose. The mayor seemed willing to take that risk.
“I’m so excited,” Mayor Brad Dantzler said. “When Theatre Winter Haven is involved we know it’s going to be a good cause.”