(Flyer photo/Todd Gill)
FAYETTEVILLE — Some members of the Advertising and Promotion Commission would like more information about TheatreSquared’s financials before deciding whether to continue making payments on the $3 million the group pledged to the local nonprofit theatre company five years ago.
The commission in 2017 unanimously agreed to pay TheatreSquared $200,000 each year for 15 years to help pay a construction loan for its new facility at the corner of West Avenue and Spring Street.
The remainder of the $31.5 million construction cost came from private donations, which included major gifts from several organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable foundation and the Carver family.
The pandemic has led to a review of some of the commission’s financial commitments, including a 2020 decision to reduce funding for the Clinton House Museum. A review of the T2 expenditure was on this month’s agenda.
Molly Rawn, CEO of Experience Fayetteville and executive director of the commission, said the group has so far made four annual payments to T2, but hasn’t yet cut a check for 2022.
Martin Miller, executive director of TheatreSquared, gave a presentation to the commission, which now has only one remaining member – Chrissy Sanderson – who was part of the commission when the group agreed to make the payments to T2.
“The $200,000 a year that we received from the A&P Commission really was a reflection of the broader faith that this community had in TheatreSquared in 2017 when we came with a vision for building a new permanent home for professional theatre in Northwest Arkansas,” Miller told the group.
Before that, T2 held its performances inside the Walton Arts Center’s Nadine Baum Studios, a nearby converted beer distribution warehouse west of West Avenue. The new venue features two performance stages, rehearsal areas, costume and prop shops, dressing rooms, a cafe, guest apartments and offices. Public common areas with gathering spaces were also included.
Miller said money for the loan was borrowed based on the commission’s financial commitment.
“We turn around and send those payments to (the bank) to pay off the loan they gave us on the faith that the A&P Commission gave at that time,” Miller said.
The pandemic caused a nationwide decline in arts attendance, Miller said, and Northwest Arkansas is not immune. Miller pointed to the recent news that the Fayetteville Roots Festival would not return in 2023, and said while T2 has seen an uptick since 2020, things have not fully rebounded.
“We still have a hill to climb,” Miller said. “We’re at about 40% below our pre-pandemic levels.”
The theatre company held on through the pandemic by continuing programming through streaming performances, and was able to keep its staff using federal relief funds, but that emergency aid is running low, he said.
“This year, we’ll need to find some additional one-time support to offset the fact that ticket sales are still a bit low to get us to next year when I hope they’ll be back up to par,” said Miller.
One option, he said, could be the approval of a $1.2 million request for a portion of the $17.9 million the city is expected to receive in American Rescue Plan assistance.
Commission chair Todd Martin said a closer look at T2’s recent financials would help him make a more informed decision about continuing the annual payments. Specifically, Martin mentioned revenue numbers on the food and drinks T2 sells at its cafe and asked whether T2 has used any of its guest apartments as short-term rentals.
“I do understand that as a public entity we need to support the arts, and I’m very much in favor of that,” Martin said. “But I do want to also understand where we where are with regards to the financials, in depth.”
Martin said he wants to make sure the commission isn’t using public funds to assist an organization that competes with other downtown businesses.
Miller said concession sales don’t make much of a dent on the T2 budget, and while the guest apartments have been rented to outside performers a few times, they are almost always in use by the organization’s own artists.
Commissioner Elvis Moya said it would be good to see ticket sales data related to out-of-town visitors.
“I would love to see how many of those are from outside Northwest Arkansas, specific to those who are coming in to specifically visit TheatreSquared and bring tourism into our city,” Moya said.
Miller said he’d provide all of that information to the commission at its next regular meeting in November.