City Ownership of Historic Theatre Properties

A common topic of discussion in the historic theatre community is the pros and cons of municipal ownership of a theatre property. While often times it is not a choice that can be made, there are compelling reasons in favor and against such an arrangement. Speaking from my unique experience (most properties have unique circumstances) A blend of funding from Federal grants, State grants, City dollars, tax credits, private fundraising as well as a loan from a tax increment financing district is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. City ownership represented the best, and most likely scenario to achieve a reopening within my lifetime. Five things to consider when negotiating a partnership with a municipality include:

1) City personnel, on an elected basis, can change, several times, during the lifetime of a restoration project. Your friends and public champions can be replaced by harsh critics overnight, so it is best to not have all of your eggs in one basket. It is also best to court staff people as they change less frequently and can be better advocates. This includes fire and police whom are essential and will be addressed in a later post.

2) Elected government folks like to stay in the office they were elected to. They need to have answers for an often critical public of their funding decisions. It is crucial to give them the “back-up” in cold hard facts that they can use in your defense should they have to.

3) Be careful of what you agree to in regards to operational specifics. For example you may be asked to be open a specific number of days a year – this may be out of your hands due to a range of factors.

4) Be careful of committing to a fixed subsidy without some annual adjustments or the ability to go back and request capital improvement support – everything has a life; carpet, A/C, seating, stage lighting and projection equipment.

5) Beware of the creep of government oversight. Do not let them define what you can and cannot present in the facility. Certainly issues of illegal or dangerous activities are not in anyone’s best interest, but just as the wind changes directions so does the perception of what should be presented in a “City subsidized” facility.

Of course there is more to discuss in this arena but this is a good start.

Posted on: July 10, 2010