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Seeking support, Playhouse instead takes beating from board

Hoping for a sign of support from the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, the Flat Rock Playhouse instead took a public beating and lost a 4-1 vote in the Historic Courthouse.

Commissioners voted to renege on the commitment they made to fund the Playhouse when they adopted the budget last spring, saying they cannot justify the next installment of $25,000 in January unless the Playhouse produces a business plan for long-term financial stability.


Playhouse supporters said they thought the commissioners' comments and public condemnation  dealt a blow to the organization's efforts to fill coffers with donations and ticket sales and make it to year's end.
Michael Edney, the 1 in the 4-1 vote, asked that the board not to act on Wednesday but instead to defer action until the first meeting in January after the Playhouse had a chance to complete its current fundraising blitz, sell season tickets for 2013 and finish the 2012 season. He deferred to Vice Chairman Bill O'Connor, who was attending his last meeting as commissioner.
"My motion was going to be just the opposite," O'Connor said. "Three cheers for the Flat Rock Playhouse. I think we can all agree on that." But he added that the board "has fallen down" on the planning. He urged the board to show "that you are bending over backwards to get revenue in line with expenses, or to get expenses in line with revenue."
The 4-1 vote would have blocked the $25,000 payment but Edney pointed out that under the county commission's rules of procedure action based on a discussion added on the day of the meeting must come on a unanimous vote.
That small victory for the Playhouse, though, was overshadowed by the numerous charges leveled at the theater, its management and Board of Trustees.
Commissioner Larry Young compared the Flat Rock Playhouse to General Motors, saying the carmaker had failed to perform under a CEO who was not suited. He said the Playhouse brought in a leader "who I don't think is a manager."
"I think FRP has basically the same problem, since Dale Bartlett left, Robin Farquhar passed away. They don't have a business plan in place to support their revenue," he said. "When they started this new Playhouse on Main Street, that spread 'em thinner. There's some tough questions that need to be answered. We can't give county taxpayer money to something we know is an uninsured project.... If you don't change direction. We can't give you enough money and nobody else can."
Playhouse director Vincent Marini was dismayed that commissioners had held a meeting to discuss the Playhouse without asking for information or inviting Playhouse officials to appear. The meeting, filled with comments from commissioners and the public speculating on what would happen should the Playhouse may close, did more harm to the Playhouse than anything could have, he said.
"How do they possibly expect us to sell (season ticket) subscriptions or to get people to donate even a dollar to the Playhouse," he said.
Despite a bad day from a public relations standpoint, Playhouse supporters continued a spirited social media campaign to save the venerable theater.
Among the developments announced on the "Save the Playhouse" site Wednesday:
• The effort has raised $20,769 toward the $250,000 goal.
• Organizers announced a fundraiser concert in New York on Dec. 17 at the Times Square Arts Theatre featuring Lauren Kennedy ("Zelda") and others.
• County Commissioner Edney announced his plans to buy 2013 season tickets. "I called the box office this afternoon to purchase 2013 Season Tickets and got a message that they were closed until Friday - for Thanksgiving. We all do have so much to be thankful for, including the Playhouse! I will be calling back Friday with my order and commitment to the 2013 schedule and beyond. Michael Edney, Henderson County Board of Commissioners."
• Many supporters and businesses expressed their support. "We, at Highland Lake Inn and Season's Restaurant just want to quickly note that we have been incredibly busy preparing for Thanksgiving this week, but we want to make mention of our sincere support of and appreciation for the Flat Rock Playhouse," Kelly Walters wrote. "We are actively looking for ways we can assist and contribute to saving the Playhouse and will be back in touch with you all shortly to share those ideas of support with you!"

Chris Ricker, a Playhouse trustee and immediate past president, said he too was disappointed at the lack of support from the commissioners and worried that public bashing of the theater depresses ticket sales, subscriptions and donations.
"I think it's unfortunate some of the discussion involving the county commissioners has done a lot to harm the Playhouse," he said. "I'm not sure what interest is served a discussion that's guided in that direction."
He said the assault on the Playhouse is rooted in the discussion about raising the occupancy tax by a penny and directing the proceeds, about $225,000 a year, to the Playhouse.
"The idea for that tax to help fund the Playhouse came from the county commissioners and it was based on economic development," Ricker said. "But for some reason some influences were strongly opposed to it for reasons that I've never fully understand.... I think if the issue had been discussed honestly and accurately the people that I know (on the Board of Commissioners) would not have been put in a position to vote the way they did."
Playhouse officials, to no avail, have tried to portray the situation as an issue of jobs, economic development and tourism. They acknowledge that management decisions in 2010 started a downward spiral, but Playhouse trustees have avoided blaming Marini for those decisions. Ticket sales plunged 17,000 in 2010, the same year the Playhouse board voted to move ahead with the Playhouse Downtown space and make other investments in the Playhouse property. The theater lost $1.36 million and $500,000 the next year, and is trying to break even this year.
The Playhouse board and, more recently with the hiring of a fulltime development director, has raised more money through donations — $233,036 in 2009, $427,000 in 2010, $667,000 in 2011 and $825,000 this year toward a goal of $1.006 million.
"It's a tough issue," he said. "You can go back several years and see that the Playhouse has made efforts to try to increase contributed revenue. That is the simple explanation of what has to happen."
Ricker recalled the meeting last summer when the public and commissioners lambasted the Playhouse over the occupancy tax.
"I was in the room for the whole meeting," he said. "It felt very unfair. The result of that controversy is that it most likely affected ticket sales, subscription sales and contributed revenue. It was the opposite of what should have happened."