WINTER HAVEN – Local leaders discussed ideas on how best to keep the Ritz Theatre running sustainably as a non-profit during a town hall event Thursday, Feb. 7.

Around 100 city leaders attended the town hall at the historic downtown theater, many appearing interested in making donations to help with the efforts.

Around a year ago, the former board and management of the Ritz had to close the theater from a lack of income. The former board attempted to sell the theater, but former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and a local judge blocked the sale, citing a questionable lien owed to the former manager of the theater.

The financial problems of the past are still a problem for the court-appointed receiver, Charles Davis, who was appointed to advise the court as to how to proceed. On Thursday, Davis reiterated that it costs around $7,500 per month to keep the doors to the theater open, not including any payroll.

Recently the Theatre Winter Haven Board of Trustees voted to help Davis by initially donating its staff expertise to put together some programming at the Ritz. Theatre Winter Haven Producing Director Dan Chesnicka said it will cost around $300,000 to have daily programming at the Ritz over the course of the next year.

Davis said the roof of the theater is also in disrepair and the theater needs to be tented for termites. Davis said he is seeking help from city, county and state politicians to get funds allocated for these capital expenses, and the expenses are significant.

Last year, it was reported that there was still around $600,000 left on the mortgage. Davis said at the town hall that the theater was several months in arrears on the mortgage and that multiple vendors were owed money when he took over.

Chesnicka said in addition to all this, it would likely cost quite a bit to improve the stage lighting, acoustics, seating and wheelchair access.

“We had $160 in our account when we started this process,” Davis said.

To date, the City of Winter Haven and several individuals have donated around $35,000 to get the doors re-opened at the Ritz.

At one point, Davis was asked who will be on the new Ritz board.

“That's a great question that has no answer,” Davis replied.

Davis said he is hoping the court will decide on how to select a new board over the next 30-to-60 days. Davis said the current bylaws state that “members” of the Ritz Theatre are supposed to vote on who is on the board, but the bylaws do not define what “members” means. Davis said he may ask the court to re-write the bylaws and ask the court to select the new board, based on his personal recommendations.

Collectively, the coalition gathered last week seems intent on doing whatever is necessary to keep the theater running as a non-profit.

“The goal is to bring the community together, get people talking to each other before and after shows,” Chesnicka said. “But every event will be a dogfight to get people in the door.”

Those interested in making donations can do so by to Theatre Winter Haven, with the donation earmarked for the Ritz Theatre. Such donations will be used to help fund upcoming programming. Donations to help pay for some of the needed capital improvements to the 1925 Building can be written to the Ritz Theatre 100.

Currently, upcoming events will be listed on the Facebook page for the theater — @theRitzWinterHaven. Chesnicka said the website RitzWinterHaven.com will be open in the coming weeks.

Contact Charles A. Baker III at cbaker@scmginc.com.

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