Chesterton Tribune

Opera House, Expo Center debated at Porter County Council

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Staff funding requests for the Memorial Opera House and the Expo Center re-ignited the debate over whether Porter County Government should continue supporting the venues for entertainment purposes at Tuesday night’s County Council meeting.

Budget freezes had many departments returning to the council to ask for items tabled during last fall’s council budget hearings, including three new positions Opera House Business Director and Expo Center Manager Brian Schafer wants to create as business is expanding.

Schafer proposed adding a marketing & group sales director, a creative director, and an administrative assistant with salary ranges from $32,000 to $40,000.

With the exception of Schafer, the Opera House has only one other current full-time employee while the Expo Center has one part-time worker, leaving most of the duties to Schafer himself.

“I wear all the hats,” said Schafer.

Before a 4-3 vote for the positions, Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, asked Schafer to explain how he is contracted with the county commissioners and how much he earns running both facilities.

Schafer said he is a county employee as manager of the Expo Center, but is an independent contractor for the Opera House.

The arrangement was suggested by the IRS in its 2010 audit of the county, Schafer said. The agency said governments cannot hire a person for two separate employee positions. The county’s contract for the opera house is with Next Level Productions, a company Schafer runs himself.

Schafer said he believes he earned around $48,000 for the opera house and $30,000 from the Expo Center last year.

The situation did not seem right to Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, who questioned the county’s role in operating the Opera House.

“I personally don’t think we should be in the (entertainment) business,” he said.

On the other side of the table, Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, contended the Opera House is good for Porter County from an economic development standpoint. He said the venue brings people to the area who patronize local restaurants and shops. The impact art makes on culture is also esteemed by Whitten.

“I think a fundamental part of government is to support the arts,” said Whitten, who said these types of venues help prevent towns and cities from being “slum ridden” and crime infested. “To turn your back on that is irresponsible,” he said.

Fellow council member Laura Blaney, D-at large, said the Opera House continues to bring out large crowds. The Christmas show this December was sold out for all nine performances.

Blaney also mentioned that Schafer has saved the county substantial amounts of money since he was brought on in 2006, absorbing three or four full-time positions subsidized by the county at a time when the concerts and programs were not generating profits.

Rivas and Biggs said they support the arts as well but are not willing to fund the positions when the county is facing funding shortfalls in E-911 and employee health insurance.

Rivas said he knew of other theatrical companies in Portage that were supported by grants and foundations. He suggested Schafer could try a similar approach.

Schafer said he would like to seek out grants but does not have the time to do so with such a small staff.

Rivas also questioned if the Opera House, located in Valparaiso, was serving all county populations, fearing his Portage constituents were not receiving any benefit. Schafer said residents from Portage and South Haven have purchased tickets and attended classes offered at the facility. “We’re far reaching in the county. It’s not a Valparaiso venue,” said Schafer.

The resulting split vote in approving positions for both facilities had Rivas and Biggs dissenting, along with County Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th. Approving council members were Whitten, Blaney, Karen Conover, R-3rd, and Sylvia Graham, D-at large.

Tuesday night’s vote was identical to a related matter discussed in December when the council voted 4-3 to approve $250,000 in county economic development income tax revenues to repair structural problems at the Opera House and replace the old boilers.

As he stated during budget hearings, Schafer said the funding would be a one-time matter as the new positions next year will be paid for out of the Opera House’s budget which is funded from ticket sales.

County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, said he wishes to have the Opera House remain a county venue rather than turning it over to private hands and felt the county should do its best to preserve the building.



Posted 1/25/2012