BY KATHY GIBBONS
TRAVERSE CITY —
The City Opera House wants to make a couple of things clear:
It is a nonprofit organization. Its programming and operations are not underwritten by Michigan State University's Wharton Center, which manages the historic downtown landmark. And restoration still has a way to go — about $1.8 million worth.
Wharton Center and Opera House representatives invited a collection of community leaders and volunteers to an informational session Monday to discuss the facility and its future.
Page Graves, co-chair of the Opera House board, said $1.8 million in improvements still need to be made on the 120-year-old facility.
Opera House officials acknowledged local resistance to the idea of contracting with Wharton Center to manage the Opera House three years ago. But Graves said the move proved to be a "no-brainer" in terms of having professional management to beef up programming and educational and community outreach.
"Now we have them here," he said. "But now we need to make it sustainable."
Ticket sales cover 40 percent of the costs of a show. And donations have been flat, which Graves said reflects a national trend in arts giving during tough economic times.
Still, the Opera House needs to spend $120,000 to build male and female dressing rooms to qualify for Actors Equity-sanctioned shows; lack of dressing rooms also is a deterrent for other prospective performances, officials said.
Currently, a sound system has to be rented to the tune of $800 to $1,400 per event; it would cost $138,000 to install one. Also on what Wharton Center General Manager and Opera House Managing Director Diane Baribeau said is "a laundry list of capital improvements" are additional bathrooms, and enhancements to a stage that cannot physically support some shows the Wharton Center otherwise could bring to Traverse City.
The Opera House recently hired a director of development, Debbie Hershey, to help shore up funding. Baribeau said the Opera House officials applied for about $150,000 in grants and Hershey said a mailing of 14,000 just went out to solicit donations.
"We are asking people to donate $120, $1 for every year the City Opera House has been in existence," Hershey said. "We felt that for a lot of people, that's doable."
Workers on Monday literally were atop the Opera House, where they began work on a $102,000 Downtown Development Authority-funded project to replace the roof and improve insulation. DDA Executive Director Bryan Crough said the work will result in substantial utility savings to the Opera House budget.
But it's going to take more than that to get the facility on stronger financial course.
"Many people think they buy a ticket and it funds the Opera House," Graves said. "That has to be debunked.
"It's a community hall and needs community support."