Report of the Outgoing President - Tom Oldt
An Exposition for the Record on How We Got to Where We Are, Interspersed with Facts, Figures and Acknowledgments of Gratitude
One obvious means of accurately identifying progress is to compare the metrics of one’s current situation with those existing at a specific point in the past. Examining the period from three and one-half years ago, when the Ritz went into receivership, to the present, reveals a stellar turnaround nothing short of miraculous – thanks to many, many people.
As noted in the final report by court-appointed receiver Charles Davis to Circuit Judge Catherine Combee, the Ritz that he took over on September 28, 2018 had $436.56 in cash, a mortgage in arrears and headed for foreclosure, bank indebtedness in the half-million dollar range, unfiled federal tax returns, unpaid vendors owed nearly $20,000, no property/hazard insurance or working fire suppression equipment, a leaky roof badly in need of replacement, an unlit sign out front – and a lien recorded against the property by its recently removed executive director. The subsequent discovery of an active termite infestation was almost anticlimactic.
Less than a year later, at the conclusion of Mr. Davis’s tenure as receiver in midsummer 2019, all issues presented to him had been resolved, though the Ritz did – and does – have a mortgage in excess of $500,000. That the theater was able to acquire a new loan despite its sordid pre-receivership history, not to mention an absence of operating income, was due entirely to the civic-minded stance of Citizens Bank & Trust, underwritten by the willingness of twelve local families to sign personal financial guarantees of $50,000 each. Those individual monetary pledges remain in effect.
As receiver, Mr. Davis contracted Theatre Winter Haven to perform all programming, which that intrepid organization, under the inspired direction of Dan Chesnicka and with the able assistance of Tony Gallegos, performed with its customary zeal until the coronavirus disrupted the plans of all event venues beginning in March of 2020, forcing TWH to discontinue the relationship. At that point Main Street Winter Haven, headed by its cheerfully innovative director Anita Strang and accompanied by Bailey McDaniel, did an exemplary job in keeping the Ritz viable during a particularly challenging period as the effects of Covid-19 continued to unfold – an effort aided and abetted by a committed Ritz board of directors, a generous community and indispensable financial support from the city of Winter Haven.
At the conclusion of the receivership in the summer of 2019, a new board of directors was seated. As evidence of their civic commitment, citizens who took on that job included five who were recipients of the Bankers Cup, Winter Haven’s highest honor. The new board included Judy Cleaves, Valerie Dollison, Bob Gernert, Jay Gray, Steve Kalogridis, Mike Kingham, Tom Oldt, Bonnie Parker, Rick Renardson, Gary Schemmer, Kim Short, Seretha Tinsley and Mark Turner as well as ex-officio members representing the city (Commissioner Brian Yates), the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce (Katie Worthington Decker) and Main Street Winter Haven (Anita Strang).
The Ritz’s governing entity was thereafter reorganized as a self-perpetrating board with staggered terms to ensure continual rejuvenation. Additions to the board include Bea Hancock, Ivy Horn, JaQuis McCollough, Gannon Olmert and Amy Summerlin, replacing outgoing board members Dollison, Gernert, Gray and Renardson. New members being seated for 2022 include J.D. Dobratz, Carolyn Kerr and retired USAF Gen. Dennis “Jake” Polumbo.
Early last summer, the board of directors hired Beth Kingham as interim executive director while it searched for a permanent replacement. With her signature vivacity she introduced new accountability systems, devised a written policies and procedures manual, oversaw the disposal of obsolete matériel, recruited volunteers, booked talent, enhanced lighting and security, and diligently attended to the myriad tasks associated with running any successful operation.
While Ms. Kingham was busily revamping and reorganizing, a board hiring committee cast a wide net seeking outstanding executive director material through various national sources and was able to identify several nominally qualified prospects, a number of whom were interviewed via video conferencing, two of whom were brought to Winter Haven for onsite interviews. Ultimately, neither was thought up to the job.
Happily, a supremely competent candidate soon emerged. Our final interviewee turned out to be Alyssa Garber, who came to us with a degree in event management from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality, experience at the Four Seasons Resort and a powerful desire to make the Ritz the crown jewel of downtown Winter Haven. In just a short period of time as executive director, Ms. Garber has devoted her considerable aptitude, energy and enthusiasm to achieving this overarching goal – and the results are both tangible in the present and rich with promise for the future.
Since her arrival in late September, events as disparate as movies, improv, dance, tribute bands, magic shows, comedy acts, lectures, markets and classical concerts have graced the Ritz’s exquisite space. On deck are a continuing mix of concerts, events and performances designed to appeal to widely diverse audiences – all of whom are important to the present and future sustainability of what we are pleased to call “Downtown’s Stage Since 1925.”
Financially the Ritz enjoys by far its best condition since before or after it came out of receivership. When we needed tens of thousands of dollars to replace the roof, local contributions were sought and quickly received. When we required seed money for the executive director’s salary, the necessary sums were rapidly obtained from an outpouring of support that included important elements of the private sector, which recognized the Ritz’s symbiotic role in the area’s economy.
On an ongoing basis, we have regular income from three rentals, two of which are related. Bridge Church leases the auditorium Sunday mornings as well as an office adjacent to the executive director. In addition, Weight Watchers rents the reception room Saturday mornings. In sum, on an annualized basis, these rentals bring us a reliable income of just under $3,000 per month, greatly helping to offset our mortgage, which remains interest-only at this point but to which will soon be added required principal reduction. (It should be noted that the Ritz did retire $5,000 in principal during 2021 in a lump-sum payment.)
Where events are concerned – our potential and anticipated primary source of essential future revenue – the Ritz is now coming into its own. In just the past quarter, net revenue, though fluctuating with individual performances, is on a clear upward trajectory. As important as the $21,000+ net revenue is, the fact that more than 2,000 people came through the doors – experiencing the Ritz, exploring what it has to offer, telling their friends and family about our beautiful theater while populating downtown’s eating and drinking establishments – is just as significant. Such word-of-mouth advertising invariably leads to ever-increasing interest in the theater and its offerings. While the Ritz board of directors is very pleased with progress to date, we know that this is just a taste of things to come, that the theater’s full potential is far from being realized.
From the onset of this board’s establishment, our members have pledged to be transparent in governance, committed to fiduciary accountability and willing to listen to outside advice. The results of that pledge, the community’s outpouring of support, the city’s financial help during Covid and the commitment of our board, director and volunteers, have brought the Ritz back to life – and with it, a surge of activity for downtown commerce. As Mayor Brad Dantzler observed in a recent interview, “The Ritz is vital to what is happening downtown…Ask any business owner downtown, they love the Ritz. When the Ritz is rolling, they’re rolling.”
Nothing about this outcome was inevitable. But at crucial junctures certain individuals who love the Ritz and its rich heritage, and who knew its importance to the city and to the civic life of this community, intervened to prevent its demise. But for their timely, judicious actions, the outcome almost certainly would have been vastly different. Though a community-wide endeavor, a few citizens whose essential contributions brought us to this point deserve special acknowledgement. Had the actions of any one of them not occurred, this train almost certainly would have jumped the tracks. They include Bob Gernert, organizer of Friends of the Ritz, a group which, though rebuffed, had offered to help resuscitate the dying pre-receivership organization before it succumbed to full cardiac arrest; private attorneys Steve Senn, Mark Turner and Doug Lockwood, whose individual and then collective skills were instrumental in devising a legal path forward to save the theater; State Attorney Brian Haas, whose investigation publicly revealed a malfeasant governing entity in dire need of replacement; the office of Attorney General Pam Bondi whose extraordinarily well-prepared litigators Blaine Winship and Stephanie Daniel prevailed in court; and retired circuit and appellate judge Charles Davis, who as the unpaid receiver spent countless hours employing his organizational skills, persuasive abilities and extensive legal knowledge in a successful effort to rescue the Ritz from calamitous oblivion. He was greatly assisted in his efforts by J.D. Hatton.
City commissioners, the city manager and their professional staff colleagues have been unanimous in support of a revitalized Ritz. The Chamber, Main Street and Theatre Winter Haven played critical roles in keeping the Ritz viable. The dozen families who signed personal guarantees to underwrite the mortgage did so out of pure altruism. The hundreds of citizens who endorsed a 2017 newspaper ad demanding accountability from the board then in existence demonstrated how resolute and widespread was support for the theater’s revival. And the many volunteers who have stepped forward to help both at events and at other times continue to evince their solid commitment to the Ritz as a beloved institution.
Here is the long and short of it: A community united brings tidings of great joy even when it’s not Christmas.
The Ritz, we are proud to affirm, is now on firm ground. Significant items remain on the to-do list, including obtaining grants for capital improvements, formulating a strategic plan and retiring the mortgage. But looking forward — absent a repeat of lockdowns, drastic pandemic expansion or more black swan events such as that which nearly crippled entertainment venues throughout the country — there is no reason why the theater cannot be a self-supporting and magnificently successful driver of downtown’s commercial and entertainment life, both in the present and for many decades to come.
It has been both privilege and pleasure to work with such a committed board and talented executive director. It has been an honor to serve as Ritz president during its rebirth. Given the unfettered support from this wonderful community – “Our Town” if ever there was one – and with the Ritz’s 100th birthday looming just three years hence, I look forward to the theater’s future with rekindled hope, undiminished enthusiasm and a light heart.
Thomas R. Oldt, President
Historic Ritz Theatre Inc.
January 3, 2022