City Opera House adjusting to tough economic times

VERGENNES — Faced with challenging times financially, the nonprofit organization that operates the Vergennes Opera House has taken steps to cut costs and evaluate how it operates and markets the historic City Hall theater.
Friends of the Vergennes Opera House board president Allison Rimmer said the group remains optimistic about the theater’s long-term prospects, but also had to be realistic about its fiscal health.
“I think it is important to emphasize that the FVOH (Friends of the Vergennes Opera House) and the VOH certainly aren’t going out of business or closing the doors,” Rimmer wrote in an email. “Our individual memberships are growing, and the support of the surrounding towns shows how important the VOH is to the community.”
At the same time, the FVOH began the year with a budget that showed a potential loss of about $9,700 on income of a little bit less than $86,000.
The FVOH board decided that path was not sustainable. The board earlier this spring laid off part-time events manager Tara Brooks and cut the hours of artistic director Eileen Corcoran from full-time to roughly half-time.
And, Rimmer said, the board is “reformulating” what the opera house’s mission should be and how its employee’s job description should read.
“We are re-evaluating our staffing needs, and really focusing on our outreach to the community,” she wrote. “We look forward to producing/presenting arts events in the near future, after we have evaluated what sort of events best meet the needs of the community.”
Rimmer re-emphasized that not all is bleak. The theater is well booked for the spring and summer, for example, with music, comedy, theater camps, Zumba, line dancing, and local nonprofit meetings on the schedule.
“We have stuff all the way through,” she said. “It’s not like there are pigeons roosting.”
But problems have cropped up in recent years. One has plagued many businesses and nonprofits: The recession that began in late 2007 and still lingers.
“Our business sponsorships went down by 80 percent,” Rimmer said. “The economy did its thing.”
Also, through the late 1990s and early this past decade, the annual “Ladies Rally” event brought in substantial funding each year, while more recently the event has been less successful.
Meanwhile, concerts and other programs the opera house itself sponsored haven’t been paying off.
“We were doing a lot of programming … and those just kept losing money for us,” Rimmer said. “The ticket sales would just cover the artists’ fee, and we would lose our time and publicity.”
The board hoped hiring an events manager and a full-time artistic director would boost the theater’s bottom line, but Rimmer said that proved not to be the case, leading to the tough personnel decisions of this spring.
“We didn’t make a payback on those investments,” she said.
The requirement to put in a costly sprinkler system, a project that is still ongoing after several years of stops and starts, has also taken FVOH’s time, energy and money. It is also possible that the emergence of Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater has put a dent in Vergennes Opera House attendance.
Still, Rimmer said there are positives, starting with the adoption of a more realistic budget and an increase in resident members.
“Our individual memberships have grown,” she said. “We know the individuals love us.”
Moving forward, a key will be determining how best to keep residents happy and interested in the Vergennes Opera House.
“We want to look at what sells in our market, what does well here,” she said. “You come around to what does our market want? … What are these people doing on a Friday night, and what do they want to do?”
Some help in market research and strategic planning is on the way. A Middlebury College student will work for the theater this summer through the school’s “MiddCore” program, which specializes in providing help in marketing and business planning for small nonprofits.
One question to be researched is what to ask of a FVOH employee. Rimmer said that more emphasis might be placed on the theater’s leasing operations and on serving an increasing membership.
“It’s what … do we need to keep the doors open and keep it a lovely rental space … and keep contact with the community and our individual and business members,” she said.
Certainly, FVOH wants to continue to promote what Rimmer called a “romantic” setting for special occasions, including wedding receptions, bridal showers, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs.
“We are not looking to produce our own shows, but we’re certainly open to renting,” she said. “If you are looking to do something, we’re here to do that.”
And it remains a theater with excellent acoustics.
“If you’ve got a band and want to perform, we’re here,” Rimmer said.
FVOH is also for a second straight year going to request $10,000 from Vergennes aldermen to help tide the organization over until the reformulation is complete. Rimmer is optimistic FVOH will not have to ask again.
“The goal is not to rely on city funding in the future,” she said.
Rimmer said FVOH will again emphasize to the city council the positive economic impact the theater has on Vergennes, including by bringing people downtown who the spend money at other businesses.
“There are a lot of people coming through,” she said.
FVOH can also document the many improvements to Vergennes City Hall the organization has funded since the early 1990s.
“We always can point out $1.5 million into this building was generated by the Friends,” Rimmer said.
Former FVOH president Gerianne Smart noted that much of that money was spent not just on upgrading the theater space, but on the building itself.
For instance, FVOH oversaw the fundraising to put a new roof on the building in the 1990s at a cost of nearly $40,000, none at taxpayer expense; bought a new furnace that serves the entire structure; and successfully applied for a $250,000 Agency of Transportation grant that funded repointing of the building’s brick exterior, a process that also required Smart to attend workshops in Montpelier.
“The Friends have demonstrated a humongous, altruistic and tremendous level of giving to the taxpayers of Vergennes,” Smart said.
Smart called the current situation “a great opportunity for the city” to help FVOH stabilize and continue to operate the City Hall theater.
She also addressed the concern expressed by some that FVOH said it would not ask for city funding when it began the restoration effort two decades and $1.5 million ago.
Smart said when the building was first built early in the 20th century, Vergennes officials probably also promised taxpayers it would be properly maintained.
“You go back 120 years. They didn’t know in 75 or 80 years the city was going to let the structure fall down,” Smart said. “Somewhere along the line a promise already was broken.”
Regardless of the council decision, Rimmer said the theater’s popularity should ensure its future and that of FVOH.
“It’s an important part of this downtown. It’s like the park,” she said. “I think most people recognize the value to the community of having a vital organization.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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