Hope Donnelly started this year with a mantra: “If you’re not scared, your dreams are not big enough.”
Her dream? To create a place that provides a sense of community, self-preservation and exploration of arts and creativity in a safe, supportive environment.
Donnelly’s dream is one step closer to reality as she begins renovations on the Rialto Theatre on north Franklin Street between Interstate 275 and Palm Avenue. Under the business name 8-Count Productions, the 10,500-square-foot space will soon be home to art galleries and other space for small businesses, two dance studios for private lessons and group classes, and event space for up to 300 people.
An Eckerd College graduate, painter and former professional dancer, Donnelly teaches art at Jefferson High School in Tampa by day.
She first had the vision for the space five years ago and has had her share of typical entrepreneurial challenges — finding the right real estate, obtaining funding, and general fear of the unknown. After contacting numerous banks, she found that most tried to make the business plan fit within their parameters. She finally obtained funding through a Synovus Bank’s Small Business Administration Loans program loan officer, who believed in the vision and found a product to fit her needs. Additional grant funding is being sought from arts and historical organizations, including the City of Tampa Historic Preservation Department. All in all, $500,000 is anticipated in renovations alone.
She credits her success thus far to the learning opportunities she has experienced in different professional environments, as well as the support of friends and mentors. The tipping point was when she met her fiance and business partner, George Carter II, who supported the vision with his heart and soul and is now an equal part of the creation. Carter will also provide choreography and photography services in the new building.
“It’s easy to get run down by the challenges, because there will be challenges,” says Donnelly. “But, having other people getting excited about the project helps keep me going. The sense of community has been amazing.”
Donnelly and Carter closed on the building October 15 and celebrated with a rooftop sunset toast with those who played a part in making it possible. Next steps include obtaining permits from the city that will allow the interior work to begin.
Donnelly was adamant about finding space in or near downtown Tampa, feeling that the area has so much talent and vision that it just hasn’t connected yet. She was also looking for walkability and a neighborhood feel in an urban environment. “We’re building a lifestyle, not just a business.”
The theater was constructed in 1925 and first opened its doors in 1926. It has been vacant since 2005, at which time it had been used as an auto repair shop. The renovation plans are to keep the historic nature of the theater in tact while adding a contemporary feel.
With dance classes and events mainly taking place after hours, small businesses will be able to use the space during the day for studios, galleries, video shoots, photo shoots and the like. This multifaceted approach challenges the typical dance studio or event space business model, which can be tough to maintain because of unused space during daytime hours.
“There is no right business model,” says Donnelly. “There is no right profession or business concept. What makes you happy can find its way into a lifestyle, making an income, generating enough to support yourself.”
Renovations are scheduled to be completed by Thanksgiving, allowing the space to be open for holiday events. The business will be fully functional in January 2014.
As for conquering fears, Donnelly recommends a mind over matter philosophy: “Talk about it often. The more you talk about it, the more likely it’s going to happen.”