This overhead view shows the lighting fixtures, and the near completion of the ceiling. [ David Adlerstein | The Star ]
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Storm-tossed Port almost back to shore

Eighty-five years since it first opened in downtown Port St. Joe as a movie theatre, and five years since it shut its doors due to the ravages of Hurricane Michael, the Port is about to punch tickets again.

The target date for completion of the construction by Quina Grundhoefer Architects had been this month, but completing the interior looks now to be late winter at the earliest.

But that doesn’t strike David Warriner, president of the non-profit organization overseeing the revitalization of the Port Theatre Art & Culture Center, as a frustrating prospect.

It’s more like a feeling of energized anticipation, based on a walk-through with him and his wife Trish of the interior of the site at 314 Reid Avenue.

Warriner revels in the work so far done by architect Carter Quina and his team – a new roof, new plumbing and electrical and sprinkler systems, a modern stage they are enlarging considerably, more bathroom and concession space, rejuvenated dressing rooms, audio and light booths, the clean but still rough-textured brick walls that line the interior, the repurposing of as much of much of the original wall materials that went into the 1938 construction as can be used.

He and Trish pore over the site but don’t mess with the dusted-over equipment strewn around what will soon become a hushed space in air-conditioned comfort.

Trish and David Warriner stand in the center of the main seating area of the Port, facing the stage. [ David Adlerstein | The Star ]

The fact that he dutifully picks up some clandestine cat poop off the floor that his wife has spotted he views as a good omen, a sign that a feral feline took upon itself to help in clearing out any curious rodents.

In terms of the timeline, Warriner sees this juncture as a moment in this multi-year million-dollar project similar to turning an aircraft carrier, as it veers from one steady quiet direction of large-scale funding from government entities, corporations, and foundations and large contributions from private donors.

It still will need those big dollars to sustain itself, but the year to come will see a welcoming of a spirited donor program for major gifts, repeating gifts, naming opportunities, bequests, and endowments.

For example, the volunteer board of directors that has steered the ship so far are eying a “1939 Society,” where a contribution can purchase a plate on one of the chairs; or perhaps a sidewalk in front akin to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where those willing to pitch in can have their star on the pavement.

The streetscape view of the Port Theatre. [ David Adlerstein | The Star ]

To understand the enhanced situation the Port finds itself in, you have to go back more than 55 years, when modern movie theaters in suburbs and malls, not to mention television, forced a closure of the downtown venue in 1967.

After standing dormant for 28 years, Wade and Paula Clark reopened it in 1995 as an auction house, a wide open unadorned place many remember as a good place to find bargains.

After being listed on the National Register of Historic Places 20 years, the Port was owned beginning in 2007 by Apalachicola investor Harry Arnold, who sold off the shuttered space to the community-formed non-profit that drew on a state historic grant to buy it in November 2015.

The building was intact, but without a lot inside. “The building was basically a shell before the hurricane, two bathrooms and a stage,” said Natalie Shoaf, a member of the board of directors. “Chairs were borrowed from the event company, and sound and lights were loaned to us by Rick Ott.”

In May 2016, the Krickets opened the theatre back up with an album release party and then over the next two years, the 501(c)3 qualified for a pair of half-million grants, only to miss out when they fell just short of the Legislature’s funding threshold. Or as in 2018, when the state diverted monies to school security measures in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting.

A view of the balcony, as seen from the stage. [ David Adlerstein | The Star ]

In 2017, the board began a ‘Thursdays at the Theatre’ program that led to about two dozen events with an audience of up to 350 people at many of them, Shoaf said.

“The entire community helped, firemen stood at the doors, and local stores sold us stuff for refreshments at cost and took back what we did not use,” she said. “I didn’t have enough jobs for all the volunteers that wanted to be involved. Local and regional groups performed and just split the door revenue or gave it back to the 501C3.”

Private monies from Ram Trucks and country music Duo of the Year Brothers Osborn helped fund renovation of the theatre’s marquee and facade by Windolf Construction to accommodate the filming of a truck commercial, and by September private lighting of the neon signage was paid for by board members and private contributions.

Then came October 2018, and a menace named Michael tore the roof off.

Since then it’s been a steady series of securing monies, and cutting through the inevitable red tape, from government entities that include a $500,000 National Park Service grant awarded in 2019, a series of FEMA reimbursements that have totaled about $750,000, a $436,850 Florida Historic Preservation grant and $50,000 in matching funds for a grant from the city of Port St. Joe’s Downtown Redevelopment Agency. All told, about $1.5 million has come in.

After C. Lawrence Construction was hired, construction began in March.

A view of the old plumbing fixtures that can no longer be used. [ David Adlerstein | The Star ]

Once the entire building work is complete, there is still going to be a lot to address, adding the items that make for a fully equipped venue for learning, entertainment, leisure, communication, and personal growth.

“The vision is to become the premier producer of quality, affordable cultural programs in the region, enriching cultural growth and nurturing personal happiness,” the board wrote. “The organization is committed to making art and culture accessible, inclusive, and appealing to all.”

The Port plans to offer regular programming that includes film, live performances, rentals, educational programs, and community events. 

“The organization plans to build and sustain partnerships through coordinated events, communication, education outreach, and programming,” the board wrote. “The motto ‘art for all’ will guide this effort, and the historical significance of the Theatre will be used to engage community support and pride.”

To make the most of this opportunity, Warriner said the board will move away from completely volunteer staffing and hire a general manager/executive director with “a dedicated focus on implementing the strategic plan and managing the Theatre’s operations.”

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

One Comment

  1. I have been visiting Cape San Blas, and Gulf County for more than 30 years, now owning a condo at the Cape. I love learning about new things happening in the area and I really appreciate this story about the plans for the Port Theater. The plans sound fabulous in developing a cultural venue for the area. Thank you for sharing this information.

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