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A Naples theater group looking to expand the city's Norris Community Center to accommodate its growing audience receives preferential treatment when renting the space, some smaller theater groups and individual performers said.
Those same groups worry that if the nonprofit Gulfshore Playhouse is allowed to renovate the center, it will further cut back on their opportunities to perform.
Norris Center officials deny that Gulfshore Playhouse receives preferential treatment, even though it has proven to be an economic driver for the city. And the head of the playhouse said she hasn't pushed anyone out of the auditorium.
"I only have a desire to make the community better," said Kristen Coury, the Gulfshore Playhouse founder. "I don't want to make people mad at me."
When the Norris Center reopened in 2004 after renovations, the idea was to have a place for inexperienced theater groups and actors to practice their craft without too much expense.
But calendars provided by center staff show Gulfshore Playhouse uses the auditorium more than any other community group. Coury recently proposed nearly doubling seating at the auditorium to accommodate as many as 350 people, adding a fly loft that could exceed 30 feet, improving lighting and sound systems, and making the space handicap accessible among other improvements.
Some smaller theater groups are concerned that if Gulfshore Playhouse officials pay for the upgrades, they'll want to use the space more than they already do.
Naples City Improv, a comedy group that recently announced an indefinite hiatus, used the space until this year.
"While we completely support all performing companies in (Southwest Florida), it would be a shame to lose a valuable communal space that with the changes proposed would eventually and inevitably become a space that does not benefit the community at large and one that most would not be able to afford to utilize," Judith Gangi, Naples City Improv's business manager, said in a statement on the group's behalf.
Larraine Olnowich, a Patsy Cline impersonator who performed at the Norris Center for years, left when her husband's health declined shortly after Gulfshore Playhouse came to the center, but recalls having trouble scheduling her shows.
"I had to do a show at 8 p.m. and (Gulfshore Playhouse would) rehearse until 7 p.m. and in one hour I had to bring in my props, had to get myself dressed behind stage," she said. "I was compressed for time because they were given priority in the space."
"(Gulfshore Playhouse) was renting it like everybody else," she said, "and then they kind of took over and became the dominant user."
Jennifer Fox, park manager for the center, said Gulfshore Playhouse does not receive preference for dates and times even though she acknowledges they are a big economic driver for the city. When smaller theater groups such as Pelican Players disbanded, there were vacancies to fill, she said.
"Gulfshore stepped up and filled as many dates as they could and really became the primary rental group here," Fox said.
Coury said she hasn't edged any group out of the auditorium. She said her group was able to pay rent when the economy took a hit and the city changed its rental rates to mimic the county's. Gulfshore Playhouse pays the city about $50,000 to rent an office space and the auditorium in the center.
Coury maintains she's searching for a permanent home for the theater group and unless the Norris Center expansion is a perfect solution, she won't force the issue.
Before Fox took over, Mary Margaret Gruszka worked as director of programming for the center. She now works for the county but has heard complaints from some theater groups about being able to use the auditorium should Gulfshore Playhouse receive permission to renovate.
"Maybe some other groups are afraid to come forward," she said. "I wish (Coury) well but I think there might be a better location for her downtown."
She saw the Norris Center as a home for people who were new to theater but were looking to give it a whirl.
"That's what was in mind when the new Norris Center was built," Gruszka said. "If (Coury) is going to go to six productions a year, I don't know how there will be time for other groups."
As director, Gruszka said it was a challenge to schedule several theater groups each year.
"I scheduled with them individually," Gruszka said. "The Pelican Players did three shows a year. That's all you could let them do. That's all a fledgling group was capable of doing, frankly."
Mayor John Sorey said it makes sense for the group that drives the most traffic to get preference for use of the space.
"Everybody wants dates in January, February and March. We have dates in August but nobody is interested," he said. "Entities that are providing the most benefit for the city should get first choice. I've had zero (complaints)."