Theater District restructuring continues

A steering committee tasked with restructuring the city’s performing arts operations has recommended a public/private partnership to secure the funds...

A steering committee tasked with restructuring the city’s performing arts operations has recommended a public/private partnership to secure the funds needed to cover more than $3 million in deferred maintenance to city-owned theaters, according to officials who spoke at the City Council study session August 2.

The steering committee, which operates as Arts Forever and includes more than 80 civic leaders and community volunteers, also recommended the hiring or creation of an autonomous non-profit organization with strong fundraising and revenue-generating skills to operate three city-owned Broadway theaters — Rialto, Pantages, and Theater on the Square — located in Tacoma’s Theater District.

“If we are going to continue to have a vital theater district and serve the community, we need a strong non-profit,” said Bill Weyerhauser, co-chair of Arts Forever. Such a move would change the city’s existing relationship with the non-profit Broadway Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA), which has operated the city’s theaters for more than two decades.

The steering committee’s recommendations were followed by an announcement that BCPA Executive Director Eli Ashley planned to leave his post at the end of the year, according to a letter addressed to BCPA’s board of directors.

Ashley is a city employee who reports both to BCPA’s board and the city manager. Earlier this year, a consultant hired to examine the operating arrangement between the city and BCPA described that relationship as “ambiguous,” and contributing to a lack of accountability in operations.

That awkward relationship was evidenced last fall, when a series of facilities issues temporarily shut down two theatres.

On Oct. 14, the Tacoma Fire Department closed the Pantages due to concerns about the fire curtain that separates the stage from the audience. Even after the theatre opened Nov. 5, technical difficulties remained: the theatre temporarily hired additional staff to lower the fire curtain in the case of an emergency.

On Nov. 9, the Rialto Theatre closed after fire and electrical inspections cited safety concerns, including the capability of the theatre seats to automatically retract during an emergency. Though the theatre received approval to re-open Nov. 24, the balcony remained closed until Dec. 1 due to continued repairs. Scheduled performances were either moved to a different location or cancelled completely. In one instance, the city paid over $100,000 in damages to a renter when the Pantages closed.

“Obviously we have had issues,” said Arts Forever co-chair Charlie Bingham, during yesterday’s study session.

The recommendations made yesterday include the following:

— The city assumes fiscal responsibility for maintenance of the three theaters, which includes structural systems such as plumbing, building repairs, and HVAC);

— A non-profit organization separate from the city is responsible for operations, maintenance, and janitorial services, and signs a five-year operating agreement with the city;

— A department within the city would manage the contract and monitor the success of the non-profit organization.

Public Facilities Director Mike Combs supported the idea of a stand-alone, non-profit organization responsible for all aspects of operating the theaters. “It would be a one-stop shop for daily maintenance, booking, and operations,” he said. “We would want that to fall under one governing group.”

Combs also stressed the importance of turning the theaters into revenue-generating venues. “These facilities are underutilized,” he said. “We need to have more events in these buildings.”

Bingham echoed those remarks, citing a need for the non-profit to raise funds and create revenue — particularly in light of $3 million in deferred maintenance, and $5 million in remodeling costs needed at the Pantages.

“The donor community community is not too confident about what is going on at these facilities,” said Bingham.

Arts Forever has recommended a partnership between the city and private donors to fund deferred maintenance such as stucco facade rehabilitation, new HVAC systems, improved auditorium acoustics, water damage repair, stage electrical repair, new seating, stage improvements, back of house refurbishment, theater equipment upgrades, and new carpeting.

Arts Forever was formed after a study session on March 29. The steering committee also created five subcommittees designed to focus on specific aspects of theatre operations, including:

Facilities Readiness and Preservation — Largely responsible for identifying areas of deferred and ongoing maintenance in the theatres, this subcommittee is expected to provide cost estimates for deferred maintenance and annual operating expenses.

Governance — This subcommittee is responsible for identifying the best non-profit management structure to support the theatres. One recommendation from an earlier consultant called for the city to assume full responsibility for the theatres through the Public Assembly Facilities Department (PAF). PAF would recruit and hire an on-site general manager to supervise the operation, management and maintenance of the facilities. The general manager would not present performing arts or engage in fundraising. Rather, BCPA would become a non-profit resident presenter of touring performances with its fundraising directed toward support of its performing arts activities. Under this option, BCPA would no longer raise funds for capital improvements.

Contract Management and Finance — This subcommittee is responsible for identifying issues surrounding the city’s ongoing financial support of the theaters, including the level of city funding, the department that will manage the contract, and any new sources of public monies which could support the maintenance and operation of the theatres.

Customer Service and Audience Development — This sub-committee is exploring options for improved box office service, joint marketing efforts, and audience expansion for all organizations.

Fund Development — This sub-committee is identifying potential new sources for private revenue for maintenance of the theatres and operational support for performing arts organizations.

During yesterday’s study session, Councilmember Tom Stenger expressed support for the idea of a public/private partnership to fund deferred maintenance. He suggested issuing a challenge to the private sector to match funds: the city would pay $1.5 million, and private donors would pay $1.5 million. “This is certainly something the city can pay for because it’s a priority,” said Stenger.

Councilmember Mike Lonergan expressed concern over the $1.5 million gift. “As important as the facilities are, we need to see a business model,” he said. “Where is the income stream going to come from? I don’t see a business plan yet. Where is the income and how do we make sure it goes toward maintaining the facilities?”

The City Council is expected to take action on the recommendations Sept. 20.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Stories