Affordable Housing

In the Wake of Florida's Arts Funding Cuts, Florida Studio Theatre Receives Workforce Housing Grant for Its New Arts Plaza

Ron DeSantis cut $32 million in funding from Florida's arts budget—but a $1 million grant for affordable housing made it through for Florida Studio Theatre. That means the organization is on track to break ground on a new $57 million project next year.

By Kim Doleatto July 10, 2024

Florida Studio Theatre in downtown Sarasota

Last month, arts organizations across the state found themselves reeling after learning that Gov. Ron DeSantis had cut $32 million in funding for arts and culture organizations this year, effectively wiping out the state's entire 2024-2025 arts budget. DeSantis said in a June 27 news conference in Polk County that the decision was spurred on by his desire to defund so-called fringe festivals, which he called "sexual festivals." (There are four fringe festivals in the state, two of which receive state funding.)

Locally, DeSantis' sweeping veto means a loss of more than $3 million for Sarasota County arts organizations, including downtown Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre, which expected to receive about $70,000 from the state this year. 

The theater's managing director Rebecca Hopkins, who has been with the theater for 26 years, is worried. “We got $106,000 [from the state] last year, and two years ago we got $150,000. This year, it's zero," she says. "You know cuts can happen, but they never have before."

But the theater got lucky, too. While it lost its arts funding, it received a $1 million workforce housing grant from the state to be used for affordable units in an eight-story building going up next door to the Gompertz Theatre.

Of the grant, Hopkins says, "We were in a different playground, advocating for housing. This grant is about funding that, not the arts."

Currently called the FST Arts Plaza, the project will be a mix of two-bedroom, two-bathroom and studio units—57 in all—slated for the top three floors of the building. It will have 135 parking spaces across the three bottom floors and include two new theaters, bringing the theater's audience capacity from 750 seats to a little more than 1,200. "You won't feel like a speck, and every seat is a good one," Hopkins says.

A rendering of the FST Arts Plaza, which will also provide workforce housing.

The plaza has been roughly eight years in the making, and it will be “life-changing” for Florida Studio Theatre, Hopkins says. The organization hires more than 250 guest artists annually, and the majority of them must be provided with free housing and transportation due to union regulations. Artists stay in town for anywhere from three weeks to six months, but the average stay is four or five months, according to Hopkins.

For years, visiting artists have been scattered around 80 bedrooms in 18 homes near downtown Sarasota that the theater owns and manages. Most of them are what Hopkins calls "Old Florida wood-frame bungalows" that are costly to maintain and prohibitively expensive to renovate. The per-head cost of housing guest artists currently amounts to about $200 a week. Once its Arts Plaza project is done, the theater will be able to sell the bungalows and scale down to just two cars for employee use. (Currently, the theater has a fleet of 12.)

The new units will also be available for short-term rentals and will cost roughly 80 percent of the area median income, which amounts to $1,508 a month for a one-bedroom unit and $1,810 a month for a two-bedroom.

“Up until 10 years ago, all the artists and employees lived downtown, but have been pushed out," Hopkins says. "This will help us create a more vibrant downtown, too.”

A recent survey from a private company that offers online consumer news and customer reviews found that rent in the North Port, Sarasota and Bradenton metro area rose by almost 55 percent over the past four years—the second-largest spike of any major U.S. city between 2019 and 2023. In Sarasota and Manatee counties, rents increased from a median cost of $1,559 per month to $2,413 per month, which was greater than the 54.4 percent increase for the same period in Miami and Tampa.

Along with the state’s $1 million, cash gifts from donors are also fueling the Arts Plaza project. In April, philanthropists Ed and Susan Maier and Dennis and Graci McGillicuddy made gifts of $4 million and $2 million, respectively. Earlier this week, the theater announced another $2 million gift from Cheryl Gorelick and Jake Zeigler, which was matched for a total of $4 million. So far, the theater has raised $41 million of the $46 million it needs to support phase one of the project, which includes opening the parking garage and the three stories of artist housing. It's on track to break ground in early 2025.

“It's a tapestry of funding that makes places like this work,” Hopkins says. “Seventy percent of it comes from our ticket sales and 30 percent is from donations. This community is so philanthropic, and we're so fortunate.”

But amid the good news about funding for the Arts Plaza, DeSantis' statewide arts cuts will certainly take a toll on the theater's operations.

"The reality is this kind of cut means cuts to other things,” Hopkins says. “We have free and subsidized children's programming, which is one of the ways we connect with the community and give back.” DeSantis' decision to pull funding will affect programs like that.

“People don't realize that arts and culture is one of the biggest employers in Sarasota County,” Hopkins says. “Like every business, we’re already struggling. From a business perspective, this is a huge hit.”

Florida Studio Theatre has a direct budget of more than $10 million, reports an economic impact of $17 million annually and employs at least 100 people at any given time. According to the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, nonprofit arts organizations contribute more than $176 million annually to household income in Sarasota County, and nearly half of all attendees at local arts performances and events come from outside the county.

“Arts and culture are what attract people to Sarasota,” Hopkins says. “For every dollar spent in tax money, $9 comes back. Where else can you get that level of return?”

"We're hurting for ourselves and for [other organizations],” she continues. “But we have to make our case and make the legislature and the government understand the power of arts and culture. That's why the state has invested in it for so long." 

Hopkins says the theater will deal with the cuts in the short term, but has concerns about the coming years if funding cuts happen again.

"If this money goes away long term, we don't know what we'll do," she says.

In the meantime, she’s urging the public to do what it can to support local arts organizations and to let legislators know how important the funding is for the community and the economy.

“Art brings in business, but it also makes us better human beings,” she says. “It’s about understanding different points of view. I don't care who you vote for. We're all trying to get through the same issues. When an army used to attack, it targeted cultural centers first because shared culture is what makes us us.”

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