Turnage in financial peril

Published 4:31 am Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This begins an occasional series on the Turnage Theater.
The Turnage Theater is in danger of being shut down, perhaps for good this time.
Located below an extant 1913 vaudeville theater, the former movie palace had seen better days when it was shuttered in 1980.
The revival of the theater didn’t begin until 1996, when a group of local volunteers kicked off a movement to resurrect it as a cultural center.
Despite booking a slew of successful acts, financial peril has hounded the historic theater since its doors were reopened in November 2007, following the lengthy restoration process.
A prolonged downturn in the economy hasn’t helped stabilize the theater’s finances.
But today, Turnage leaders are confident they can turn — or are turning — this operation around with the right mix of public and private support.
Jon Tingelstad, president of the Turnage Theaters Foundation, pointed to the cooperation of banks and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as keys to keeping the theater open.
Still, the specter of closure lingers.
“I think that danger is always there,” said Tingelstad. “It sort of, in a sense, has always been there, but we’ve managed to stem the tide, especially with the help of the bankers and the National Trust and some very loyal money raisers.”
Bob Schultz, the foundation’s treasurer, said one facet of the theater’s financial structure is National Trust tax credits that come with historic status.
“They kind of sell the tax credits to a bank and they, in exchange, provide funding,” Schultz said. “The National Trust is kind of a broker and syndicator. They match these historic facilities with people that can use the tax credits. In this case, it’s Bank of America, which provides the funding through the National Trust to us, and that goes on for about five years, two years after this. But then it goes away.”
With the hunt for steady revenue streams underway, the staff of the theater, along with the foundation’s board, is pleading for the community’s help in keeping the facility open.
“A theater cannot survive purely on ticket sales and whatever it generates in terms of revenue,” Schultz said.
Turnage leaders note that anyone is eligible to become a member of the foundation for as little as $40 per person, and that contributions to the Turnage are tax-deductible.
And they indicate they’re keenly interested in hearing potential patrons’ expectations of the theater.
“We struggled last year with trying to determine what kind of acts would be well received here, and we had several shows, particularly in the classical (vein) — symphony, quartets and things like that — that did not go over well, and we lost a considerable amount of money on that,” said Schultz.
In response, this year Scotty Henley, executive director of the foundation, changed the theater’s ticket pricing to make attending Turnage shows more affordable, according to Schultz.
Henley noticed regular patrons were buying up tickets through package deals, and that “presales” of tickets were outstripping sales the week or night of shows.
“To me it means that our past patronage that helped sponsor this theater’s existence, and hopefully the shows that I’m bringing in, are the ones buying up front, and that’s exhausted,” Henley said.
In answer to that problem, Henley altered the programming to include more productions that resonated with the theater’s target audience, such as bluegrass concerts and nostalgia acts, Schultz said.
“As a result, we’ve improved our overall performance from last year to this year,” he added.
The theater is around $85,000 ahead of where it was this time last year, and “expenses have gone down dramatically,” Schultz related.
“That doesn’t necessarily translate to cash, but from a profit and loss perspective we’re doing better this year,” he said.
That reads like good news, but the theater still has “a black cloud” hanging over its head, Schultz asserted. The cloud comes in the form of “a $2 million mortgage, which is somewhat unusual for a theater of this type,” he stated.
“Most theaters of this type are affiliated with a city or county, they own a facility or take a larger role in the overall investment in the facility,” he said. “And we haven’t had that, so we’re somewhat unique in being a stand-alone facility.”
The foundation has managed to pay the mortgage down enough to leave $1.75 million outstanding, Schultz said.
“Basically, the debt service requires 50 cents of every dollar we raise,” he pointed out, adding the mortgage requires an expenditure of approximately $400,000 a year.
Schultz projects the theater will end the year about $15,000 in the red.
The City of Washington committed $100,000 a year to the foundation for five years, he said.
“This was the last year for that commitment,” Schultz commented.
Foundation representatives want to meet with city leaders in the hope of restoring the local government’s contribution, Tingelstad said.
“We’re going to be meeting with the powers that be and hopefully this (funding) can be restored because that is a big step in the right direction,” he shared, “and if we can expand that by getting more support from local and regional businesses and industries, I think all will be well.”
The Turnage needs to take in more corporate contributions, Schultz said, revealing that last year the foundation snared just $17,000 from small and large businesses.
“We’re going to have to continue to be blessed with these resources, and hopefully more,” Tingelstad concluded.
For more information, visit the foundation’s website, www.turnagetheater.com.
Charts courtesy Bob Schultz