Old Manatee Players theater in downtown Bradenton destined for demolition

myoung@bradenton.comJuly 9, 2014 

The City of Bradenton is trying to decide what to do with the land and building that housed the Manatee Players for years on prime riverfront property. The property is unused now since the Players moved into the Manatee Performing Arts Center. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald

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BRADENTON -- The walls of the old Manatee Players theater have absorbed laughter, surprise and even tears extracted by a generation of actors and actresses whose mission was to invoke those emotions from theatergoers.

But the building will probably never see another performance, as the city focuses on a vision of downtown that doesn't include the old theater. In March 2013, the Manatee Players moved out of their original home at 102 Old Main St. to their current location at 502 Third Ave. W.

The old building likely will be demolished once the city finds someone to redevelop the property.

"I've been working on this property for quite some time, and the land uses include allowing up to a 20-story building, but it only sits on about two-thirds of an acre," said David Gustafson, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority. "It's a beautiful piece of property with a breathtaking water view, but it needs to be as

sembled with another property to make it work."

That could include the Bradenton City Hall site.

City Clerk Carl Callahan said the old theater property could be a catalyst to transforming the waterfront, but the right project would require more space.

"Obviously, we want something to enhance the waterfront with the things people have talked about over the years," said Callahan. "That includes looking at the City Hall site. Some feel that should be sold and be made available for development and yeah, that's an option, but it's something the city council will determine and that isn't likely to be soon."

Gustafson said he believes the goal would be a high-rise, multi-use structure that would include residences, restaurants, retail and more.

According to Cathy Slusser, Manatee County director of historical resources, the auditorium's construction began in 1951 and was completed the following year on the vacant property obtained by the city in 1931. Denny Miller, marketing manager for Manatee Players, said the building was built specifically for the community theater group and leased by the Players until last year.

"When they first built that building, no one had any idea what Bradenton would be like today," said Miller. "Where City Hall is now was an orange grove, and the theater brought people downtown before there was a downtown."

The Players opened their 52-year run in the Old Main Street building with "I Remember Mama," and two years later became the first nonprofessional community theater group to gain rights to produce "Oklahoma."

"The building will hold a dear spot in our hearts for all of us who performed there," said Miller. "It's considered to be the anchor of what has become the arts center of the city."

Decades of performances

With more than a half-century of performances in the building, the structure served its purpose. The Players moved to garner more space and technological upgrades the old building wouldn't support. But the memories there are more important than the building, said Miller, who hopes the city "does something wonderful with that spot."

The city hopes so, too.

Gustafson said the property has significant value and the building will likely come down -- if and when the right developer comes along and presents a plan in line with the city's long-term vision for downtown's waterfront.

"It's a cool building, but to bring it up to electrical and fire suppressant code alone would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Gustafson.

There is no real historical significance to the building, but the land-use options for the property are plentiful, he said.

"All of us are anxious to see what can occur there as part of the bigger picture that includes all of downtown," he said. "I would like to see more high-rise, multi-use structures like what you see in downtown St. Pete. This particular property should be the signature project and that's what we are telling developers.

"It has to be something special that will ultimately create jobs, increase the tax base and act as a tidal wave of success toward all of downtown," Gustafson added.

The city has ordered a property appraisal and once that is completed, the land will be entered into an official "surplus" category, making it more available to potential developers.

"To this date, the city hasn't discussed options for it," Callahan said. "This is all part of the long-term vision."

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014ww

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