Curtains closing?

Venue funding changes concern performers, officials

GREENFIELD — County officials plan to defund Greenfield’s downtown theater.

The H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts stands to lose approximately $65,000 a year in county funding, instead requiring the theater’s manager to apply for local grants to pay facility costs.

It’s a loss tourism leaders said will force them to raise the facility’s rental rates — or, at worst, close the theater’s doors to community events.

The Hancock County Visitors Bureau, which owns and operates the theater, receives about $5,400 a month of the county’s innkeepers tax, which is charged to local motel guests and is used to promote tourism in Hancock County. The visitors bureau uses that money to pay for maintenance and offset rental costs for groups that want to use the theater at 122 W. Main St., said theater supervisor Dave Scott.

That arrangement has long drawn criticism from hotel owners, who argue basic maintenance at the theater isn’t an appropriate use of funds intended for promoting the county, while Scott points to out-of-towners who attend the Ricks Centre events as proof the facility’s upkeep is tied to tourism.

The county’s proposed 2018 budget — set for approval in October — strips the guaranteed funding from the theater’s bottom line, requiring visitors bureau officials instead to apply for grants to show more clearly how taxpayer money is being used to bring visitors to the area.

The change has sparked concern among local performing arts groups that depend on the theater — the only community stage venue in Greenfield aside from the local high school. Scott has turned away groups attempting to book 2018 dates at the theater, saying he’s uncertain about the future of the facility without guaranteed county funding to cover the roughly $2,800 in monthly maintenance.

A public hearing about the county budget will be at 9 a.m. Sept. 27 in the commissioners’ court, Hancock County Annex, 111 American Legion Place, Greenfield. The floor will be open for people who have questions or concerns. Following the budget’s approval, groups of 10 people or more may challenge the budget through the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, auditor Robin Lowder said.

The Ricks first opened in 1946 as the Weil Theater and became the Village Theatre in the 1980s. In 2005, owners Linda and Allen Strahl donated the theater to the visitors bureau for use as a community arts center. That same year, a $700,000 renovation began, restoring some of the theater’s vintage decor to complement the downtown historic district, Scott said.

The building, which seats about 400 people, welcomes roughly 50 to 75 community events throughout the year, including the George and Icy Vaughn talent competition, film festivals, dance performances and live theater.

Now, leaders with those organizations could be facing higher prices to put their acts on stage. The theater rents for $300 a day ($200 a day for nonprofit organizations), but without the innkeepers tax keeping costs low, those rates could double, Scott said — placing them outside the budget for some small community groups that have historically looked to the theater to host their events.

The Brandywine Wind Community Concert Band has conducted concerts two to three times a year at the Ricks Centre for several years, said director Jerry Bell. If rental costs go up, the nonprofit band will be forced to seek another venue, he said.

It’s a concern shared by Debbie Wilkerson, owner of Wilkerson Dance Studio, which has used the Ricks since it opened in 2006 for dance performances, including during the Riley Festival each October.

It was wonderful to have a restored historic theater available to her dance groups, she said.

When she tried to book the theater for an event in February 2018, Scott told her he wasn’t taking reservations because of the uncertainty, she said.

Starting next year, the visitors bureau board of directors — which includes Scott — will be required to apply for grants from the tourism commission to fund the theater.

The bureau could receive a similar amount of funding as it received from the innkeepers tax in 2017, but that money isn’t guaranteed. The bureau’s application must demonstrate a need and show how the money will be used to meet it, said tourism director Brigette Cook Jones.

The visitors bureau should also consider seeking funding from institutions dedicated to the arts or preserving historic buildings, she said.

“The Ricks is definitely an asset; it does draw tourism to Hancock County,” she said. “I think there are opportunities for other grant funding and fundraising, which is something they’ve not had to do so much in the past, being tax-supported.”

The change reflects an ongoing debate between county leaders and hotel officials about appropriate use of the innkeepers tax, said county board of commissioners president Brad Armstrong.

In previous years, innkeepers tax money was given in lump sums to the visitors bureau, but the bureau’s board wasn’t required to provide records to the county showing how the money was spent, Armstrong said. That drew criticism from hotel owners.

By applying for funding through the tourism commission’s grant process, bureau leaders will show how much money they need and what it will be used for, he said.

“With money driven from a tax, there should be accountability there,” Armstrong said. “We’re using taxpayer money from people who stay in our hotels, and this process will allow oversight from elected officials.”

Tourism commission president Earl Smith said the change should help streamline bookkeeping for the commission and the visitors bureau.

The proposed arrangement for 2018 seems fair, echoed John Dodrill, owner of the Super 8 Motel in Greenfield.

“I support the fact that the visitors bureau will now have to present their ideas for funding to the tourism commission and compete with other projects on an equal footing,” Dodrill said. “It’s been my opinion in the past that the Ricks has swallowed too much of the budget.”

The funding from the innkeeper’s tax is the only income the visitors bureau receives every year aside from rental fees, which bring about between $8,000 and $12,000 a year, Scott said.

“Without that support, either rents have to increase dramatically to cover the costs of operation, or you have to think about limiting availability or closing the doors,” he said.

Using the innkeepers tax funds to keep rental fees low helps keep acts coming back to the Ricks, in turn drawing people to Hancock County, he said.

“Raising the rental fees would be counterproductive to the purpose of why we have the rents low in the first place,” Scott said.

Visitors bureau board member Sarah Wolf said she’s disappointed the tourism commission doesn’t trust the bureau to use the innkeepers tax wisely to promote activities that bring outsiders to the county.

“The theater is a vital asset,” she said. “… If we have to get nickeled and dimed on everything, it makes it very difficult.”

Dana Hart, director of Dance East Ballet Academy, said she’s already eyeing other venues, knowing the possibility of doubled rental in 2018.

Dance East rents the Ricks every year for her troupe’s holiday ballet. Hart would consider moving the holiday show to Knightstown — where the group performs some of its other annual shows — or a Marion County theater if prices at the Ricks rise.

It’s a move that would both inconvenience some of her dancers and break a longtime troupe tradition.

The group’s mission is to bring concert dance to Hancock County, she said. Finding another venue would not be her first choice.

Hart hopes the visitors bureau will find a way to locate funding without raising rents.

“It’s really going to be sad if there’s not a proper stage venue,” she said. “It’s disheartening.”

Author photo
Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.