“Once in a generation”: Florida Theatre looking at $10 million in renovations and upgrades

Jacksonville, FL — In time to mark 100 years in operation, the Florida Theatre is poised for $10 million in renovations.

“We don’t want it [the building] to be charming with some compromises. We want it to be as good a facility as it can be,” says Florida Theatre President Numa Saisselin.

GALLERY: Inside the Florida Theatre

The venue was built in 1927, and has had two major renovations since that time, with the most recent in 1994. Saisselin says that has left them with some old systems and amenities.

“At a minimum, all of these things are 25 years old, some of them are 35 plus. And things wear out, things become obsolete,” he says.

As part of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s annual budget proposal, Curry has offered up $1 million each of the next five years to match the Florida Theatre Performing Arts Center, Inc., which is the nonprofit that runs the historic Florida Theatre in Downtown Jacksonville, with the total contribution from both parties combined at $10 million. The City Council still has to approve the proposal, as part of the annual budget review process.

IN DEPTH: Jacksonville's City budget

One of the first things that would be tackled with this funding, if it’s approved, is the seating in the Florida Theatre. Saisselin says they want to keep the same feel, but install completely new seats. This would also involve better addressing ADA regulations- the seating arrangement now pre-dates those rules, according to Saisselin, so while the venue is in compliance, it is not always an ideal arrangement. There would be a few seats lost in this project, but the capacity would still land around 1,850, and Saisselin says they would largely be able to continue operations while the work takes place.

Beyond that, there are a few different areas to address, with the auditorium remaining the focus.

He says they want to upgrade the sound and lighting systems. Not only will this make for a more enjoyable show for you and the artist or event involved, but he says it could actually save FTPAC some money in the future, because currently, if an artist wants a certain speaker setup, the Florida Theatre may have to rent equipment, as an example. Saisselin says that could add up to $200,000-$300,000 each year. The new configuration and upgrades would give them more built-in flexibility and, therefore, alleviate the need to rent.

Inside of the auditorium, there would also be new painting done all around and repairs on the plastering. There are some visible areas of wear that come with age, and while Saisselin says they will be very careful about keeping the character of the building, they want to make sure it doesn’t ultimately impact the audience experience.

“We want them [the audience] to walk away saying ‘Wow, that was an amazing show in an amazing facility. Period,” he says.

The work also includes renovating the bathrooms. While Saisselin says they are limited for space because of the architecture of the building, they have plans that would reconfigure the bathrooms to increase their capacity. Air conditioning is another item on the list- updating the system so that there’s not a constant need for repairs.

The iconic marquee and canopy are also in for some work, although Saisselin says they are not changing the overall look. Digital signs were recently installed at the Florida Theatre as a result of funds from a private donor, but Saisselin says there is still internal wiring work to do on the canopy, along with structural repairs. While the canopy and marquee are not original to 1927, Saisselin says he knows it’s how people recognize the venue, and they want to respect that.

Saisselin says he’s grateful that the Mayor has put this proposal forward and that the City Council will give it consideration.

“The Florida Theatre has an important place in the hearts of its audience and in the performers who are here. It’s a very special building. In 1927, when this building opened, there were six other theaters on Forsyth Street, and this is the only one that survived. And, I think often about the theater district that could have been here if the other buildings had survived, but we’re lucky that this one did,” he says.

He says all of the proposed changes involve either enhancing the audience and artist experience, improving The Florida Theatre’s ability to make money and be financially self-sustainable, or helping them save money, like by not having to rent equipment.

The Florida Theatre does compete annually for operating funds from the Cultural Council, but Saisselin says these changes are a one-time investment that put them in an even better position to generate revenue to help cover their own operating costs. He says he’s really happy with the caliber of events they’re already bringing in as things stand, but this will position them even better, because they won’t have to make any excuses for their capabilities.

“We want to be able to say it’s a great historic building with a great audience, and our sound system is up to date,” he says.

If the City Council approves this proposal, Saisselin says the work could start by next summer. Completing everything in five years, as proposed, would mean wrapping up a bit shy of the venue’s celebration of 100 years in operation. Saisselin says they have put years of planning in to this proposal, so it’s exciting to see it moving forward.

“Comes once a generation,” he says, of the funding proposal.

The Mayor is proposing the City borrow its $5 million over the five years. FTPAC would seek funds from private donors and use revenue from an existing $2.50 restoration fee that’s included in tickets.  Saisselin says he’s very confident they can line up the money needed to get the City’s match.

WOKV will continue breaking down the Mayor’s budget proposal, and tracking how nearly $1.4 billion of your tax dollars will be spent. Stay with us for coverage in the coming weeks, as the City Council vets the details.

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