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The theater of dreams

Published on: June 30, 2011

Mitch Traphagen Photo

Mitch Traphagen Photo


If I won the lottery, I would buy the old Ruskin Theater building and work to restore it to its former glory. Leading the list of projects would be to rebuild the box office along with a well-lit marquee. The marquee would be of the old style, jutting out over the sidewalk with hundreds of lights, a beacon for the renaissance of Ruskin. I would then ask Ted and Karen Freiwald of the Ruskin Drive-In to operate it, with some additional cash that could be applied towards the operation of the drive-in. The Ruskin Drive-In is, of course, a South Hillsborough institution, and a gem that has been in danger of disappearing for years now. They currently survive on money earned primarily from the snack bar.

I have no doubt that my newly refurbished Ruskin Theater of Dreams would operate at a loss. In a world of multiplexes, a single-screen theater is quaint at best, a business loser at worst. Not to mention that it seems, more and more, that people would rather stay home to watch pay-per-view movies on their high-definition television sets.

But I believe that sometimes people would want to take their spouses or significant others out for a night to dinner and a movie. I believe that if the theater came back to life right in the heart of downtown Ruskin, it would spur new nearby businesses to open. I envision a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, a dozen flavors of coffee and really tasty baked treats. I envision chocolate, too. It probably can’t happen on its own, but if there was a theater nearby, that might just be the tipping point for a coffee shop. I envision an office building across the street, a place where entrepreneurs can find reasonably priced space to build on their dreams. That, of course, would open the door for more new businesses — an art gallery, perhaps, or a place to buy household goods or business casual clothing. The list is endless. I envision the former Ruskin Firehouse becoming the new Ruskin Cultural Center. With everything within walking distance, Friday night in downtown Ruskin could take on a whole new feel. People could go on dates without driving into the madness that is Brandon. A tour of an art gallery, followed by some conversation in a coffee shop, followed by a great movie sounds like a great way to spend an evening.  I think there are others who would enjoy it, too.

My dream isn’t without precedence. Wilmington, Ohio, has become a media darling after being dealt a particularly bad hand during the Great Recession. The city of 12,000 saw 10,000 jobs disappear when the German shipping company DHL, closed their U.S. operations. Instead of drying up and blowing away like so much dust in the wind, Wilmington is finding new life in places that had been forgotten. The city’s young people, having fled for greener pastures in big cities, are slowly returning. They are putting their social media know-how to work to help older, less connected business owners find footing in our new technological world. Coffee shops and other small businesses are opening downtown. They have a long way to go, but Wilmington’s renaissance has begun. And so it could go here.

When I first moved to Ruskin in 1994, remnants of the box office remained outside the theater. That is long gone now as the building has since served a wide variety of other purposes. But it could be rebuilt. A marquee could be installed. The roof could be fixed, comfortable theater chairs, a new screen and the latest digital film technology could be installed. Yes, it could happen with enough money and passion.

I would need to win the lottery because the entire project would likely cost more than I will ever see in my lifetime and certainly more than could ever be recouped. But the investment would be so very much worth it because I am convinced that something like that could dramatically turn the tide for Ruskin and South Hillsborough. The economy is bad right now, but that doesn’t mean people are hiding in their homes — they simply don’t have many nearby alternatives. There is nothing affordable about traveling to Tampa or even Brandon to drop more than $100 on dinner and a movie — it’s easier to stay home. But if it were right here and if it were affordable, as are the very excellent restaurants within walking distance of the theater, I think the people would come.

That is my dream. I want to take my wife out for a date to a theater right here in South County to watch a great movie or even a locally produced live performance after walking over from dinner at the Ybor Grille or Popi’s. I want to stroll through a gallery of local artists, either a private gallery or at the future Ruskin Cultural Center, marveling at the talent that resides next door to all of us. I want to enjoy my city in ways that have not been possible for decades.
It can happen — all it takes is a dreamer with a whole lot of cash and a willingness to lose a little money to gain a little soul.