Chesterton Tribune


Opera House chief eyes historic roots and tighter budget

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In her first few days as interim chief of the Memorial Opera House, Michelle Smith said she learned quickly just how much of a magnet the 119-year-old venue, at 104 Indiana Ave. in Valparaiso, was for political grumbling.

A year ago when the County Council voted 4-3 to use $250,000 of county income tax money for operations and repairs, select members of the County Council openly disputed the role the County should be playing in operating the Opera House as an “entertainment business.” Others have said the Opera House holds a cultural significance for the County and is a driver for both the arts and economic development for the county.

But Smith, picking up where former business director Brian Schafer left off when he resigned in July, aims to purge the Opera House of many its imperfections and help it become the self-funding venue it has the potential to be.

“We want to make it so (the Opera House) will no longer be an issue,” Smith said.

This fall, Smith shrunk the Opera House’s budget by about $100,000 and continues to make cuts. Recently Smith submitted to the Commissioners a list of 28 cost saving initiatives being implemented which includes:

• Decreasing the amount of hours of box office staff.

• Terminating contracts with a film distribution company after attendance was not breaking even.

• Submitting an application for non-profit postage, which if approved will save the Opera House about $5,000 per year.

• Ended a website hosting contract, a $600/yr. savings.

• Reducing the number of musicals and increasing the number of public domain plays performed, costing the Opera House less for rights and pit orchestras.

• Entering the County copier program which will lower costs from $6,000 to $1,200 per year. The office uses a lower grade of paper to receive twice the amount at half the cost.

• Dry cleaning services are now donated.

• The Opera House no longer uses storage units, a cost savings of $2,400 per year.

• Theater directors and lead musicians have decided to donate their time and talents.

Smith added that the Opera House intends to only purchase items that would benefit it “immediately and repeatedly.”

“(Each) employee is aware of the current status of our budget,” she said. “We have become bargain hunters and beggars.”

Opera House Foundation revived

One big piece of Smith’s strategy for next year is revitalizing the Memorial Opera House Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit group which would be able to apply for grants and collect tax-deductible donations. She met with two grant writers this week who are eager to begin searching for opportunities.

The set up will be similar to what the Porter County Museum of History has in place. The money gathered by the Foundation will help the Opera House expand its programming, but the building itself will remain property of the County, which will continue to pay for operations, maintenance and salaries.

The Foundation will also open up educational programs and camps for children interested in performing arts. Smith said education programs will later expand to more age groups. In the formation stages are theater classes for university students.

The reestablishment of the Foundation will also bring a new focus on the historical reverence for the opera house and its purpose as a Civil War memorial to Union veterans. The new website launched weeks ago with the help of the county tourism bureau conveys this with historical photographs of the venue and tells of how it got its start when the Grand Army of the Republic built the auditorium in 1893 to commemorate Civil War veterans and reach out to the community.

The website highlights special moments that have taken place. Film actress Beulah Bondi of “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame began her theater career in a production of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” on the Opera House stage.

“We want to promote ourselves as historical and bring more to the community than just entertainment,” Smith said.

In more fundraising efforts, Smith said the Opera House will launch a capital campaign under a consultant’s plan which aims to bring in donations totaling $1 million to $4 million over the next two years.

Commissioners’ support

The Opera House has prompted frequent political clamor due to the high cost of building preservation and upkeep. A study done by DLZ Indiana last year concluded the total needed to address all repairs currently needed would be over $1 million.

The $250,000 approved in November 2011 under Schafer’s request was for refurbishments and a new boiler to give the budget some wiggle room for new hires but so far all money has been spent on operations. Council members Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, Jim Biggs, R-1st, and Jim Polarek, R-4th, questioned if giving the Opera House CEDIT money was the right move in view of pressing challenges such as funding E-911 and the Animal Shelter.

Just this month, the County Commissioners gave the nod to $225,000 in CEDIT emergency funds for Berglund Construction of Chesterton to reinforce the brick foundation, replace doors and repair roof damage. The difference this time is a contractor is attached to the job, said County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North.

For his part, Evans said the Opera House needs to be taken care of under the auspices of the County and he supports the performing arts as it is written in the state constitution that part of County Government’s role is to promote culture.

“To turn your back on it would be a mistake. It’s going to continue to be a county venue as long as I am (in office),” Evans said.

Evans said he has been impressed by Smith’s “game plan” and her energy in making the improvements.

Smith is in the running for the permanent Business Director position. The Commissioners will announce their choice for the permanent director in the next few weeks. The director’s spot is one of the Opera House’s two full-time positions. The venue also employs an artistic director and a small number of part-time workers.

A longtime supporter of the Opera House, outgoing County Council At-Large member, and South County Commissioner-elect, Laura Blaney expressed her enthusiasm for the educational opportunities that will be available to county residents.

Blaney also said the Opera House has helped the local economy because about half of the patrons are from outside Porter County who spend their money in shops and restaurants nearby.



Posted 12/14/2012