Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 12, 2013

Wharton Center needs $250K to support Opera House


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Wharton Center for Performing Arts officials hope to mix up a soup of $250,000 in private and public funding to maintain programming at the City Opera House.

The Michigan State University-based Wharton Center cannot continue to manage and book acts into the city-owned entertainment venue unless it closes its $250,000 funding gap, said Michael Brand, executive director of the Wharton Center. But Brand said they are not talking about dropping the final curtain on the Opera House, just shrinking operations if they can't find a way to meet their funding goal.

"It's not like a grenade is going to go off," Brand said. "I don't want to dwell on what the alternatives are, but if you can't find (the money) you have to shrink."

The Wharton Center and the non-profit City Opera House Heritage Association kicked off their annual fundraising campaign with a goal of $250,000. Brand said they typically raise about $100,000 a year from private sources.

The Wharton Center has covered losses since it took over management in 2010 while it worked to bring stability to the operation. The fundraising campaign is the next step but not the only one.

Brand and Diane Baribeau, general manager for the Wharton Center, have also requested funding support from the city. The management agreement for the Opera House allows the city to use excess funds generated from leases of ground floor retail space in the Opera House building for operational expenses.

The city generates about $50,000 a year in profit from the leases and has another $40,000 in its Opera House fund, city officials said. But the Opera House building fund also owes the city $60,000 and needs to maintain a cash reserve for large-scale maintenance items for the building.

Mayor Michael Estes and Mayor pro tem Jim Carruthers both said they favor using some lease money to support the Wharton Center.

"Every similar venue that I'm aware of, including the Kennedy Center in (Washington) D.C., would close its doors without separate sources of revenue," Estes said. "I think the city has to support the Opera House. It's an integral part of downtown."

Brand said they are also looking at ways to trim the budget and raising ticket prices is another consideration.

"This is like making a good soup, mixing in a little spice and different ingredients," Brand said.

Another future funding source will come with the ability of the Opera House to broaden its offerings in the fall of 2014. Baribeau said she expects the Opera House will soon hit its $130,000 funding goal to build dressing rooms. The lack of dressing rooms prevents it from booking certain types of acts.

Bringing in more profitable performances to the 686-seat Opera House venue won't close the funding gap but will lessen it, Brand said.

"You can present until you are blue in the face in a 680-seat space but you are never going to pay for the building," Brand said.