City struggles to use theater it helped build | June 20, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - June 20, 2012

City struggles to use theater it helped build

by Sandy Brundage

If you build it, they might not come. That is the quandary facing Menlo Park as the city tries to figure out how to use the multi-million dollar Menlo-Atherton High School Performing Arts Center. It turns out that filling 492 seats takes more than a state-of-the-art theater; it may even take outsourcing theater management.

The city shares the center with Menlo-Atherton High School. The 2007 Menlo Park City Council approved a $2.6 million payment toward construction of the center on the school's Atherton campus as part of a public-private partnership with the Sequoia Union High School District. The deal guarantees the city rent-free use of the center for 55 days during the school year and unlimited use during school vacations. The city does pay labor costs, at about $80 per hour, for custodial and theater management services during its events.

It looked like a good deal at the time, because the city's seismically unsound Burgess Theatre, and rebuilding on the same site, posed prohibitively expensive problems of space and environmental study requirements, according to former elected officials.

But so far the city has never been able to use all 55 days. In fiscal year 2009-10, it booked 11 days at the center. Same for 2010-11. Last year, it used 36 days, which staff attributed to more people learning about the center and wanting to rent it.

"It's a regretful outcome," Councilman Rich Cline said. "I'm not ready to say this was a bad deal; I'm saying that we need to fix this so we get the use of it that we were promised."

Why has the long list of uses envisioned during the plan's inception — lectures, recitals, theater camps, gymnastics demonstrations, workshops — failed to materialize? The theater's too large and expensive, according to a staff report — "many of these types of events were quickly deemed unfeasible once the building was finalized and the direct costs for using the facility were realized. The average costs for a basic single-day rental for the City range from $500 (to) $1000. Often these direct costs are too high for local community groups. The size of theater, with 492 seats, has also proven to be too large for these types of events as well."

Mr. Cline, who was serving on the Parks and Recreation Commission when the deal was proposed, said the momentum of an appealing public-private partnership may have outraced the in-depth research needed to analyze the plan. "I don't recall anyone ever saying, 'this is how much it costs to run a theater like this'," he said. "It's one area that wasn't really considered as well as it should have been."

He said he thought the city should partner with the school district to hire people with theater management experience. "It's a real business. People need to know what they're doing."

Show on the road

One option for the city's program: Let someone else run it. The proposed fiscal year 2012-13 budget suggested that the city could spend $100,000 from its surplus to hire a contractor to put together a business plan, run events, manage the schedule, and other fine points to optimize the city's investment, according to Recreation Services Manager Katrina Whiteaker.

City staff members have looked to other cities as models. The city of San Ramon operates a 600-seat theater in conjunction with a local school district, while the city of Campbell outsources management of its 800-seat theater. Both charge rental rates in line with Menlo Park's.

Cynthia Bojorquez, director of recreation and community services for Campbell, said policy limits the city's subsidy for its theater to $100,000 a year. So Campbell relies upon a business model that generates revenue through facility rentals as well as ticket sales and event sponsorships.

A nonprofit organization, Friends of the Heritage Theatre, also chips in. In addition to offering grants of $1,500 to help community groups afford the space, it donates $26,000 annually, runs concession stands, and sponsors activities. "We are very grateful for their support and really view them as a key to our long-term financial sustainability efforts," Ms. Bojorquez said.

That model seems to be working; the director said the theater stages nine to 12 productions annually, with three of five concerts selling out this year, in addition to managing community use of the space.

A glance at the season brochure mailed to San Ramon residents likewise depicts a vibrant performing arts program that this year includes appearances by the Moscow Ballet, Better Than Ezra, and the city's symphony. San Ramon's program budgets $1.1 million a year and costs the city a net $504,099 annually.

By comparison, Menlo Park currently budgets $64,000 a year for the PAC, with net expenses running around $47,000 after some costs are passed along to renters. So the riddle facing the city is how to turn the state-of-the art center into a viable performing arts program on a shoestring budget.

Kepler's Books has staged events at the center. "It's a great venue, no question," said Kepler's community relations manager, Jean Forstner. "But we're always mindful that we can't afford to rent the venue, so we do it in partnership." The bookstore coordinates with the public library and the school's parents-education foundation to make the price work out.

Ms. Forstner wondered whether other community groups are even aware that they could use the PAC. "We do events, it's in our blood, so we're very 'venue aware.' Nonprofits may assume that because it's on a school site that it's only available to schools." She suggested the city could expand its outreach to increase public awareness of the center as a community resource.

Publicity doesn't come cheap. For now, the city relies on placing notices on its website and in the tri-annual activity guide to advertise events, according to Ms. Whiteaker. "However, I think general word of mouth and people attending other events at the PAC has also help spread the word," she said.

That strategy may pay off — 6,150 people attended a show at the center during the last fiscal year, up from 1,775 during 2010-11. But that still leaves plenty of room to grow; if the PAC were filled to capacity for all 55 days, that figure would be 27,060 people.

Last year Menlo Park experimented by working with a production agency, Prime Time Entertainment, for two shows. One concert headlined by opera singer George Komsky was canceled due to poor ticket sales, despite selling out theaters in Walnut Creek and San Francisco.

Jim Douglas of Prime Time Entertainment said that "what really needs to happen is to establish a decent-sized marketing budget, and get a series in place. You invest all that money on the front end, it only makes sense to invest enough resources to make it fly." He suggested the city create a user-friendly ticket website and develop a database of ticket buyers.

Councilman Cline, drawing upon his professional experience in public relations, offered another option. "Marketing is a bigger issue, and at what level, but we need to figure out a better way to get to people. I think the city needs to do a better job of creating an email distribution system that's really clear."

Sharing the spotlight

Sharing the school's resources presents its own challenges. The marquee at Menlo-Atherton High School could publicize the city's events, except that it's usually already advertising the school's, according to theater staff.

Scheduling is another issue. Ms. Whiteaker said that whenever the city requests a date at the PAC, the school has to check its programming to first make sure there aren't too many other events occurring on the same day, to lessen the impact to Atherton residents living near the 555 Middlefield Road campus.

The city's agreement with the school district also caps attendance at an event at 550, whether a single large performance or more than one small event running simultaneously. The clause effectively restricts the school and the PAC from hosting events at the same time, creating scheduling bottlenecks for the city.

"We also have several black-out dates around Friday night football games, open house, back to school night, or any large sporting event where having too many events can lead to parking problems," said Karl Losekoot, the administrative vice principal at Menlo-Atherton. "In general it is difficult to balance the needs of the school with the needs of the community given that the PAC is a school theater first and a community theater second."

The future direction of the city's program at the performing arts center remains to be decided. The council postponed debate on what to do with the city's $269,000 budget surplus until after voters decide the fate of a proposed hotel tax hike during the November elections. The budget relies on the additional $560,000 generated by raising the tax 2 percentage points; if the measure fails, the city might not have $100,000 to spend on outsourcing its theater management.