Turnage going dark

Published 12:51 am Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Turnage Theater, located at 150 W. Main St., Washington, will close Dec. 17. (WDN Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

The Turnage Theater will close Dec. 17.

This closure will follow one final show, a Dec. 16, Christmas-themed performance by the Tar River Swing Band.

The Turnage Theaters Foundation, on Tuesday afternoon, announced its decision to shutter the historic building, citing ongoing financial difficulties.

The foundation is responsible for running the theater.

“The decision to close the theater was made unanimously by the Turnage Theaters Foundation Board of Trustees on November 22 once it was determined that operations could not be sustained under the existing financial structure and with projected operating losses,” reads a news release from the foundation. “This decision was reached after months of negotiations with a consortium of five local banks led by Wells Fargo/Wachovia, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Trust Community Investment Corporation and on the advice of our attorneys.”

Earlier this month, the Washington Daily News reported that in October the Turnage had outstanding bills of around $33,000, with $6,000 cash on hand.

In a written report dated Oct. 25, Bob Schultz, treasurer of the foundation, told his board that “financial plans for 2012 and beyond that I have developed do not present a financially sustainable business for the Theater.”

He foresaw approximately $71,000 in cash obligations for the rest of the year, with some $14,000 to meet those obligations, including possible proceeds from fundraising efforts.

In July, foundation leaders reported they had exceeded a $78,000 fundraising goal by $8,000. It was said that money, generated as part of an urgent fundraising campaign, would ensure a fifth season of performances at the renovated theater, which reopened in November 2007.

Now, it appears programming on the books through next year will be cut short, and season ticketholders’ money will not be refunded.

The foundation has applied for arts grants, which have become increasingly difficult to win since the economic downturn began, said the Rev. Charles Smith, board president.

“Grants are not exactly as plentiful for the arts as they were prior to the financial crisis of 2008,” he said, adding the economy “has had a crushing impact on the arts across the country.”

Once it “goes dark,” the theater will no longer be under the control or ownership of the foundation.

It’s unclear who might buy the building after it falls into the hands of the bank.

“The bank will want to sell (the theater),” Smith said. “The question is how quickly will a buyer be found.”

The foundation board will continue to meet for the time being.

“There’s no secret plan,” Smith said. “This is not just a restructuring or something.”

Like Smith, a number of local leaders reached by the Daily News lamented the loss — temporary or not — of what had been seen as one of the city’s most vital cultural centers and economic engines.

“It’s certainly sad that the Turnage is having to close after all of the effort, the sweat equity not to mention the money that has been put into it,” said Joey Toler, executive director of the Beaufort County Arts Council.

“But I really hope that it will be able to come back at some point better than it was before,” added Toler, who’s also a nonvoting member of the Turnage board.

“This has happened in other communities,” he said of the theater’s closure, “and I would suspect that there will be community leaders that will look around and see how this has been handled in other sections of the state.”

Toler continued, saying, “I really can’t imagine that theater just sitting there indefinitely with a padlock on it.”

Sited in a complex that’s nearly 100 years old, the palace-style Turnage opened in 1930. The movie house closed in the early 1980s.

The foundation began in 1996, when a small group of restoration enthusiasts joined together to begin a serious attempt at bringing the theater back to life as a space to show films and stage performing-arts functions.

The foundation’s first big fundraiser was a bumper-sticker campaign sponsored by the Washington Community Theatre Association, now known as Pamlico Playhouse.

Since that first campaign, the foundation has attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in private contributions, and $1 million in state funding.

The City of Washington granted the Turnage $100,000 a year for five years, helping to sustain the theater through its cash-flow difficulties.

The Turnage board requested a renewal of that grant once the initial five-year commitment expired. The City Council opted to contribute $22,000 to the theater in the current fiscal year.

The city also joined with Beaufort County in offering the foundation a tax incentive grant of $8,821 a year under a seven-year agreement that defrays the theater’s property taxes.

Washington Councilman Bobby Roberson called the end of the Turnage “a sign of the economic times.”

“One of the things is that it fits into the overall central business district plan as sort of an anchor in the central business district, and it was certainly a drawing card for those individuals who like that kind of performance venue,” Roberson said.

Asked whether the council might consider further appropriations to the Turnage, he replied, “I think it would be very difficult for us. I think the real question is will the county commissioners step up. The city is part of Beaufort County as well.”

Roberson said he’d “have to take a long, hard look” at any future financial plans for the theater.

Beaufort County Commissioner Al Klemm also balked at saying he’d support the contribution of tax dollars to the theater.

“I don’t know about that,” Klemm said. “One thing that they would need to have to demonstrate going forward in the future is, (to) me as a businessman or as a county commissioner, they would have to present a viable, sustainable business model. That would have an impact on how I would act in the future.”

Scotty Henley was hired as the Turnage’s technical director, beginning his tenure there during the first season roughly four years ago.

Henley was elevated to executive director after a series of staff changes.

Faced with the theater’s imminent closure, Henley already has been offered a new, full-time job in Greenville.

“I wish it wouldn’t happen,” he said of the Turnage’s last day, pointing out he’s closing a chapter of his life and saying goodbye to the many friends he’s made here.

For more complete coverage of this story, including more comments from area leaders and a review of Turnage history, see this coming Sunday’s Closer Look in the Washington Daily News.