Paramount's 'Wake-Up' Call
Slumping Economy Touches Performing Arts Center
By DAVID McGEE | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER | June 09, 2009*** Published: June 5, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***
BRISTOL, Tenn. – A slumping economy has hurt the Paramount Center for the Arts, but the Bristol landmark, Art Deco theatre is in no immediate danger of closing, officials said.
Last week, some Paramount patrons received a fundraising letter appealing for financial contributions, but its opening paragraph set an ominous tone.
"Without your help during these uncertain times, the Paramount's doors could face closing," Executive Director Merle Dickert wrote. "The economic and cultural impact to our region would be disastrous and the "face' of downtown Bristol would change forever."
Those words were selected to serve as a "wake-up call" to help people understand the immediate needs, Dickert said Thursday.
"As a nonprofit organization, we depend on charitable contributions. That's why the board chose to use that strong language in the first paragraph – to make the public aware of what could happen," Dickert said. "No, we don't have any plans to shut the doors, but that can happen to any nonprofit organization. We have to have public support."
The support was substantial for a multi-million dollar renovation project that reopened the theater in 1991, Dickert said. Since then, the theater hasn't staged another capital campaign and many people might have taken the operation for granted.
Ticket sales have declined up to 30 percent for some Paramount shows during the past six months and the building has some significant capital improvement needs looming on the horizon, Dickert said.
The letter was mailed to a targeted list of about 6,000 regular patrons, said Rob Simis, a financial planner and president of the Paramount board of directors.
"What we would like to have is a group of 5,000 or 6,000 people that give a smaller amount of money – that they can afford – rather than going to corporate sponsorship and asking for $15,000 or $20,000 a year over and over again," Simis said. "The smaller donors are the ones that carry the show, are the heartbeat of the community and help us decide which ones are good – based on their attendance."
Dickert said individual contributions could be any amount, noting that $25 or $50 would be welcomed.
Center officials plan to continue soliciting corporate support, Simis said, but understand that some businesses might not have available resources. In addition, some former corporate sponsors such as Dana Corp. no longer operate here.
The Paramount, in addition to its own scheduled shows, hosts about 100 different events for about 240 days each year. It serves as the primary stage for Theatre Bristol, Bristol Ballet, Highlands Ballet and Theatre of Ballet Arts. It also hosts fundraising events for many area charitable organizations and a series of school band and choral concerts, Dickert said.
The Paramount also serves as the main stage for the annual Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival.
Since the facility reopened 18 years ago, about a million people have come through its doors, Dickert said, adding that about 10,000 area children attend performances each year.
Christina Blevins, executive director of Believe in Bristol's Main Street program, said the Paramount deserves attention.
"It's a concerning time for all nonprofits – people who rely on community support, grants and fundraising. When all those sources get depleted, it's hard for everyone," Blevins said. "I would hate to see anything happen to it, but I feel our community will step up, because it is so important for everyone. It's a landmark."
Officials in Bristol Tennessee are working to bring more events to the theater, City Manager Jeff Broughton said, but those plans were underway well before the current fundraising crunch.
"It was one of council's goals and objectives to help bring people downtown. That will accomplish a couple of things. It will benefit the downtown businesses by attracting more people down there and it will benefit the Paramount by bringing people through their doors," Broughton said. "The Paramount is probably the single most-important magnet to bring folks into the downtown area and we want to do everything possible to keep it from going dark."
Working to bring people downtown is the "best way" for the city to assist the Paramount, Broughton said, rather than try to pay for capital projects.
"We're having great conversations with the city right now and we're looking forward to doing some exciting things with them," Dickert said.
Both sides have discussed the city supplying some staffing for shows, splitting costs on some shows or hosting events there, Simis said.
The nearby Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., hasn't experienced a slowdown in ticket sales, spokeswoman Courtney Bledsoe said.
"We were expecting to see things take a downturn but, so far, we haven't," Bledsoe said. "Our toughest time was last year when gasoline was $4 a gallon. But our sales of season passes broke a record, [and] we've just had two of our biggest sales days for "The Wizard of Oz.' We're doing OK."
Operating the Paramount, which has five full- and part-time employees and hosts about 100 events for about 240 days each year, costs about $386,000, Simis said. More than half of that is covered by corporate and individual donations.
In an effort to reduce costs, the 2009-10 schedule features two fewer shows in the season ticket program, in the recently approved $410,000 operating budget.
"Less shows, but no less quality," Dickert said. "We're still going to offer the very best value for admission dollars."
In addition, the 1930s-era building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has some imminent capital improvement needs, Simis said. Some sections of the roof need repair and the building's heating and air conditioning system needs to be replaced. Estimates for those two items total about $235,000.
Within a few years, the carpet needs to be replaced and the concrete floor inside the theater needs a new coat of paint, Dickert said. The marquee lighting system also needs some repairs.
"We may have to search for another source of funds, like a bank loan, to get us through," Simis said. "A capital campaign is planned for late 2010 and 2011. Hopefully, by then, we'll have everything taken care, the next year's shows would be taken care of and the capital campaign would meet the capital improvement needs."
One goal of the campaign is to establish an endowment fund that was part of the theater's original plans but "never got off the ground," Simis said.