by Jordan Green
High Point taxpayers foot a much higher percentage of the cost of their city’s entertainment venue than their counterparts in Greensboro, but city officials argue the investment is worth it.
The city of High Point’s subsidy of High Point Theatre, a complex housed in the massive International Home Furnishings Center, fluctuates from year to year, but has generally tracked upwards over the past four years.
The city is spending $564,548 to support the theater, or 56 percent of its budget, up from $302,816, or 38 percent, in fiscal year 2009.
In comparison, the city of Greensboro generally covers 14-16 percent of operating costs for the Greensboro Coliseum, a much larger venue that has become a dominant player in regional entertainment and sporting events. The city of Greensboro is funding the coliseum to the tune of $2.1 million this year.
A theater study committee comprised of citizens brought a recommendation to High Point City Council last week to make modest investment to upgrade the facility.
The cost of renovations recommended in a 2008 master plan by Perkins Eastman comes to $15 million, but the theater committee recommended a shorter list of improvements that will run about $1.5 million. The highest priority item — replacing 1975-vintage rigging and draperies dating back to 1988 — has already been budgeted by the city.
Theater Director David Briggs said he doesn’t yet have a cost estimate for improving signage — ranked second in importance in the list of improvements. The theater is considering an upgrade to its marquee as well as off-site electronic signs on Highway 68 and Wendover Avenue.
“I don’t know that we’re ever going to get to a place where the theater is self-sustaining to where it will cover 100 percent of the cost,” Assistant City Manager Randy McCaslin said. “I think what the theater committee was looking at is that by making the investment it would get the theater closer to covering the cost and that the theater would be a much larger benefit.”
McCaslin said it’s more appropriate to compare High Point Theatre to similarly sized, municipally owned venues in Lenoir, Morganton and North Wilkesboro than the much larger Greensboro Coliseum.
“We return 44 percent; our goal is 50 percent or better,” Briggs said. “Other venues, the return on investment is between 28 and 56 percent.
“From a municipal point of view, things like parks and rec we expect to recover 30 to 35 percent,” he added. “We don’t ask the fire department to return anything. We’re just a service. We’re not on equal footing with the fire or police department — I don’t mean to suggest that. In terms of quality of life, we’re just as important as ballparks or pools, and we house the only gallery in High Point.”
Briggs said the theater has a two-fold strategy for increasing revenues, including creating a private meeting space to increase rentals from business groups and promoting better attendance for events held in the theater’s auditorium by increasing the budget for artist fees and marketing. Briggs dismissed a highlight from the theater committee report to carve out smaller venues for local musicians — think the Crown at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro — saying it’s simply not practical.
“We want to get more butts in the seats,” Briggs said. “One [approach] is increasing the budget line for artists’ fees so that we can bring in bigger names. The second is having a bigger budget for marketing.”
Briggs said he wants to develop a marketing strategy before he submits a request for additional funding to the city.
The theater produces 10-12 events per year through its Passport to Entertainment Series, in addition to rentals to outside groups through events such as the Miss North Carolina pageant, bodybuilding contests and Guilford County Schools’ “State of Our Schools” program earlier this year.
The Passport to Entertainment Series drew 3,432 in the 2012-2013 season, with an average attendance of 286 compared to total occupancy of 965.
The theater’s top attendance number came from Southern humorist Jeanne Robertson, who brought in 929 people. The Graham native’s “Don’t send a man to the grocery store!” bit has garnered 5.7 million views on YouTube. Robertson was also the artist with the second highest fee for the season, after country singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith.
The venue saw its lowest attendance — 153 people — for Ninety Miles Project, a collaboration between vibraphonist Stefon Harris, saxophonist David Sanchez and trumpeter Christian Scott to celebrate Cuban-American jazz.
The percentage of artist fees recovered through total box office revenue has steadily dropped over the past three seasons — from 146 percent in 2010-2011, to 91 percent in 2011-2012 and 63 percent in 2012-2013 — not counting additional production costs.
The most disappointing returns in 2012-13 were for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Adventure Tour, which cost $19,543 to produce, and brought in $1,935 from ticket sales.
“Our demographic is from 22 on up,” Briggs said. “We had some family-friendly events for folks with children like Maria-In-the-Shower. Jon Batiste and Terrance Simien, they play very well to a younger demographic if we can get the word out to that demographic. We had Rick Derringer and Garry Wright; that’s a 50-65 crowd who remembers that music from the ’70s and ’80s. If you look at our acts, we truly do cross all age brackets.”