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NAPLES — A Naples theater group might tear down the Norris Center auditorium to build a replacement that would exceed the city's 30-foot height limit and seat 350 patrons, nearly double its current capacity.
The center at 755 Eighth Ave. S. has housed the Gulfshore Playhouse for five years and attendance at the nonprofit's shows has increased each year. Now the group is looking to expand its current home or find a new one in the city and has offered to pay the costs.
Naples City Council gave the theater group permission Monday to explore the possibility.
The new theater would add 150 seats to the 200 existing seats and could obtain a variance to exceed the 30-foot height limitation for public-service zoned parts of the city. The height would accommodate a fly loft, a large space above the stage for lighting and curtain equipment. The Sugden Theater on Fifth Avenue South boasts an 80-foot-tall fly loft.
The center's main building housing classrooms and a game room would remain untouched, along with the shuffleboard and basketball courts that belong to the center and the tennis courts of the Arthur Allen Tennis Center, said Dave Lykins, the city's community services director.
Gulfshore Playhouse would raise the money — more than $5 million, founder Kristen Coury estimates — to build the replacement structure. They would have professional designs drawn up and would work with the city to draft an official use agreement. The Naples Players' agreement with the city for the Sugden Theater signed in 1994 will serve as a reference, city staff members said.
Gulfshore Playhouse will update the council before the fall, and approval for any plans is long off. But those who use the center and live nearby are asking questions now.
Lavern Gaynor waited quietly in the back of City Council chambers Monday for her turn to defend the community center that her parents built in 1964.
The main room of the Norris Center was supposed to be a dance hall, an inexpensive place for residents to gather, the longtime Naples resident and philanthropist said.
"As the years go by things change, according to the wishes of that time," Gaynor told council members. "They're going to change again. Ten years from now I don't want a big facility that won't be utilized."
Residents of the area echoed Gaynor's concerns when contacted after the meeting.
As a member of the Old Naples Association, which meets in the Norris Center, and a 25-year resident of an Eighth Avenue South home across from the Norris Center parking lot, Jim Elson worries another reconstruction would ruin the current beauty of the center, renovated in 2004.
"I wasn't happy when they tore down the first one because it fit into the park," Elson said. "The landscaping has finally grown in. The building has finally settled into the park, which is more than 50 years old. Now they want to rip it up again."
Elson said there isn't room to expand west without putting a wall up along the basketball court and the walkway along it. There is space to expand east, he said, but why alter a public building for the benefit of one group?
"Anything can be improved," he said. "You could get up to Philharmonic style, but there is no end to making it better."
Linda Condon, another Eighth Avenue South resident, has attended the Norris Center near her home for everything from theater performances, to dance classes to yoga. And while parking for popular events sometimes blocks her into her driveway, Condon said the activity is what makes downtown worth living in.
"It makes sense to make it bigger," she said of the theater. "I've been to shows there and if you don't sit in the front you can't see."
Richard Delfino, treasurer for the Italian Cultural Society of Naples, said his group would benefit from an improved theater. The society showed eight Italian films this year and rented the theater for three hours at $110 each time.
"It would make it even more comfortable for the people watching the films," Delfino said. "We'd have to see how much the rental cost would be."
Other community groups that rent the space for meetings would still have access to it, Coury assured, but details of such arrangements are pending.
Council members were critical of the sharing arrangements but largely eager to give approval, calling the theater an economic benefit and cultural pillar.
"A new and vastly improved auditorium at Norris, with no capital cost to the taxpayer, will not only benefit the restaurants, hotels and businesses, it will benefit city residents as well," Councilman Doug Finlay said.
Mayor John Sorey said the public will have several opportunities for input and that the true test of support will be the success of fundraising efforts.
Now, the work falls to Coury.
"I'm enthusiastic about the City Council's response and the general consensus and acknowledgement of us as an economic driver for the city and an addition to the cultural atmosphere," Coury said. "That was heartening."