TCs Opera House
By Rick Coates
After being embroiled in the center of controversy for the past month, the drama at the City Opera House appears to be coming to an end. Or could it be just act one is over? Maybe the next couple of weeks during the holiday season will be the intermission and in January of 2010 the second act in the drama will begin to unfold.
As the Express went to press last week, it was all but a foregone conclusion that on Monday, December 7, the Traverse City Commission would approve a three-year management deal between the City Opera House Heritage Association (COHHA) and the Wharton Center for Performing Arts at Michigan State University.
As the curtain came down on scene one of act one, on November 23, the city commission had charged City Manager R. Ben Bifoss to meet with all of the parties involved to clarify local access and usage of the Opera House in a Wharton-managed scenario.
Over the past two weeks, Bifoss did just that and new language was added to the agreement to clarify local access and usage. But some were surprised when they did not receive a call.
We thought we were going to be part of the discussion group, said Sam Porter of Porterhouse Productions. We thought we were going to have some input in this process since we have been a primary user group over the past year.
But Bifoss did not see it that way.
My understanding was I was to meet with the parties involved: Wharton, COHHA and City Opera House LLC to insure that provisions for local access would be included in the contract, said Bifoss. That was accomplished and there is now strong language to accommodate local usage based on historical local usage currently in play. I am satisfied with the agreement and have recommended it to the City Commission for approval.
NOT AN ISSUE
Michael Brand, executive director of Wharton had no issues with the additional provision because he does not see it being an issue.
First of all, Wharton operates four theaters in East Lansing that host 1,350 events annually and we only produce 150 of those events; the rest are presented by local promoters, other non-profts, etc, said Brand. We see that same ratio taking place in Traverse City.
So what will a Wharton/City Opera House look like in 2010? Brand says that will depend on what the community wants.
The first step will be to assess, discuss and bring in a new software system.
Our team made up of six individuals, three who have places around Traverse City will sit down with COHHA and local users and start to map out a plan, said Brand. We need to find out from local promoters what they need from us to make what they are trying to do successful. We also need to improve the operational infrastructure.
Brand says that a Wharton executive will be onsite two weeks of each month, with another fulltime person added to assist with operations.
One person excited to see Wharton come in is best-selling author Doug Stanton (Horse Soldiers). Stanton launched the National Writers Series last year and experienced some frustrations with how the Opera House was being operated.
I feel very confident after my conversations with Mr. Brand that Wharton will work with us and other groups who are trying to build programs that will have not only a positive impact on our community but also for the Opera House itself, said Stanton. The fee structure and the miscellaneous costs being imposed were making it cost-prohibitive to build this series. I see the National Writers Series having two events each month at the Opera House and bringing national recognition to both Traverse City and the Opera House.
It is these add-on or hidden costs that promoter Sam Porter is concerned about.
The rental fees are one thing but it is all the additional add-on costs that a small community-based promoter like myself will not be able to take on and be profitable, said Porter. When I was in Bozeman (Montana), the venue there had a no national promoter policy and would only work with the local community promoters. These venues worked with the local promoters and everyone shared in the risks and rewards.
These concerns go to the core of the argument of COHHA board of directors as to why having a professional management company in will benefit all user groups.
Wharton speaks their language. they understand this business, said Angela Schuler, co-chair of the board. We realized that the complexities of operating a performing arts facility on a day-to-day basis cannot be handled by a volunteer board.
We know raising rental rates does not work, even ticket sales is not the sole answer, said Brand at the Nov. 23 city commission meeting. This business is about a balance between rental fees, ticket sales, donors and endowments.
ROOM TO EXPAND
In a telephone interview last week, Brand furthered his point.
The Opera House is going to require more usage from more users. With only 120 days out of 365 that are currently used, there is a lot of room for a lot of things to take place there. If what is presented is a variety the donor base for the operation is expanded, said Brand. So our plan in 2010 is to meet with local promoters and users and talk about how we can collaborate to make what they are doing successful. That might mean restructuring rental agreements so that we can build these types of series that local promoters are talking about.
So at the end of 2010, what will a Wharton-managed Opera House look like?
If we do our job right the Opera House will have diverse programming that will appeal to a wide demographic in the region, said Brand. It will become that anchor that everyone hopes it will be. It will be a cultural gem for the region and an economic driver for downtown.
That is music to the ears of COHHA board that over a 25-year period raised $8 million to restore the Opera House. So, what do they see as their role in a Wharton-managed Opera House?
First we will be able to turn our energies back to raising the $1.5 million and maybe more needed to complete the restoration. After all, that was what this board was originally established to do. There are technical improvements that need to be made backstage and restorative painting as well as other items, said Jeff Corbin, of the Opera House LLC.
Brand says that the first step (if the City Commission approves the agreement) will be to start meeting with user groups to develop programming.
I think what Traverse City is going to find is that we are going to put together a broad base of cultural and user offerings at the Opera House, that at the end of the day all of us are going to be proud of our accomplishments.
The contractual agreement between COHHA and Wharton calls for a $75,000 management fee and Wharton receiving 25% of revenues if the Opera House is in the black at the end of the year. Currently the Opera House operates in the red, a fiscal responsibility of COHHA board, not the taxpayers of Traverse City. So after July 1, 2010 Wharton will now be financially responsible for day-to-day operations and any losses incurred.
So Wharton has financial motivations for the Opera House to be successful, but Brands response to that might come as a shock, especially to those who are expressing concern over the deal.
We are a non-profit performing arts organization, interested in presenting programming that the community we represent will be proud of, said Brand. Traverse City will know when we have been successful not only from us orchestrating a variety of programming but if in three to six years they no longer need us to be here to manage the Opera House and they can take it back over.
What? Isnt it Whartons objective to manage performing arts venues around the state?
Not at all, said Brand. This opportunity simply presented itself to us. We were asked and we felt we could help the Opera House out. We have partnerships around Michigan including in Traverse City that are collaborative in nature. I do not see us managing other facilities around the state, we have four of our own, now the Opera House and several collaborative partnerships, we are certainly fulfilling our mission.
Now the question to be answered is, will Wharton fulfill their mission at the City Opera House?
I am hopefully and cautiously optimistic, said Sam Porter. I will be resubmitting my holds (verbal agreements to dates) next week for several shows in 2010. I plan to average two shows a month (Porterhouse started a concert series last year that appealed to the young professionals in the region). There are a lot of questions still to be answered and concerns over fair access for the local promoter versus the national promoter coming in.
Stay tuned, the second act of City Opera House will take place in 2010. Oh, one request of Wharton from this entertainment writer: Any chance U2 could do a satellite date this June at the Opera House? It never hurts to ask.