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City Council votes 3-2 for Playhouse aid

A divided Hendersonville City Council on Friday voted to allocate $50,000 to the Flat Rock Playhouse so it can remove mold from buildings on the grounds, pitching in on a financial rescue that Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens said meant life or death for the 2015 season.

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"Either it gets done or they don't open the season," Stephens said. "To me it’s totally different from overspending and having no control on spending like some of the issues have been in the past."

Mayor Barbara Volk and Councilman Jerry Smith joined Stephens in voting for the donation while council members Jeff Miller and Steve Caraker voted no.

"The city has been very good in the expansion of the Playhouse on Main Street, and I want to say that I agree with what the previous council did on this with expenditures for the Playhouse facility on Main Street," Miller said. "Personally I’ve supported the Playhouse with time and treasure, I don't want anyone to get it mixed up, but I do have a problem with taxpayers' funds in the city going to this particular project."

Stephens and Volk said the Board of Commissioners will take up a request to allocate $50,000 and the county Tourism Development Authority, in a special called meeting on Tuesday, will vote on whether to allocate the last $35,000 to fund the cleanup work. All the donations together would give the Playhouse the $185,000 a contractor said it needs to clean the mold from older buildings on the theater grounds. The Mainstage auditorium was not affected, Playhouse officials said.

"I do support the Playhouse. I've been a season ticket holder in the past for several years," Caraker said. "I liken this to any business’s business plan. I voted for expenditure on Main Street and for special appropriations but in my mind this is like my going to my neighbor and saying I've got a problem with my house and I need him to bail me out of mismanagement."

"I'm in support of this," Smith said, "but I also say when it comes to special appropriations next fiscal year, this will definitely affect how much I'm willing to offer and I almost view this as an advance on what we would have been giving next year."

Volk said: "I agree with Steve in that we shouldn't be bailing out people who don't keep up their property, and most businesses I would agree. But if you consider the economic impact of not having the Flat Rock Playhouse, I think that outweighs it."

Caraker responded, "I agree with the onus of the economic impact but this is starting to be a reoccuring theme with this entity. That's another thing that bothers me about it."

"They have to take each of these issues and learn from them," Miller said. "They did not have a facilities committee. Every small church in this county has a facilities committee. I do hope they've learned from this and move forward with it."

The city's action meant that it was two votes down and two to go in a high-wire act to save the State Theatre's 63rd season.

The Playhouse management learned of the mold problem after an air quality check of 12 buildings on the 14-acre property three weeks ago. The results showed poor air quality in several of the buildings and the need for a complete overhaul to eradicate mold. The Mainstage theater was not affected, theater administrators emphasized.

After adding the Playhouse request to the Village Council agenda on Thursday morning, Flat Rock Mayor Bob Staton strongly endorsed the Playhouse management and urged his colleagues to support the $50,000 appropriation.
"No. 1, it has our name on it," he said. "It's one of two major attractions that bring people here. I think we simply have to do what we can to keep it going."
A member of the Playhouse Board of Trustees, Staton said the theater management has worked to control expenses and stage less costly shows in 2015.
"They have reduced staff, they have laid off folks who are year-round who will be brought back starting in April but in the meantime they have a bare bones staff and they've done everything right" to cut costs, he said. "This particular board is the most hands-on board I have seen since I've had anything to do with the Playhouse. Everything was looking good for the upcoming season, then we get hit with a whammy" in the form of the mold. "The cost is $185,000, which the Playhouse does not have."

Elected officials hear of the problem

On Monday Playhouse administrators invited elected officials from Flat Rock, Hendersonville and Henderson County to an informal meeting for "a debriefing of the situation," Playhouse spokesman Dane Whitlock said on Thursday night.
Staton said he hoped that both the city of Hendersonville and the county Board of Commissioners would join the village in helping the theater.
"Barbara (Volk) was at a meeting that I attended the other day at the Playhouse as well as Ron (Stephens)," he said, "and I've had two or three conversations with Ron since then and he's confident that Hendersonville will do something, too, and he hopes it will be a unanimous decision. But until they actually vote, which they will do tomorrow at their budget workshop as I understand, nobody knows."
"I really don't know which way they're going to come down," Staton said of the county Board of Commissioners. Commissioner Michael Edney "thinks he has their support, he's confident he has their support. Until they vote, nobody knows."
At a groundbreaking ceremony for an agricultural company in Mills River, Volk and County Commissioner Charlie Messer confimred that their boards would be taking up the request for financial help.

"We can't do it by ourselves," Messer said. "I think they've got to get some more estimates before they can come up with the real amount. Michael's going to put it on the agenda for Wednesday."

Broader concerns about finances

Although council members voted unanimously for the appropriation, the request triggered a broader discussion of Playhouse finances and the challenges the theater faces. Councilman Jimmy Chandler said he had heard about bills the Playhouse owes to vendors.
"I keep hearing about this – people that are not getting paid — and I just wonder how big a problem that is," he said.
Staton responded that there's no question that past due bills are the biggest ongoing fiscal issue. But he said in response to council members' questions that the theater had finished 2014 in the black and was forecasting a better than break-even season this year.
Vice Mayor Nick Weedman, often the fiscal watchdog on the Village Council, praised the theater for its quick action and endorsed the donation.
"This is not an operational problem," he said. If the theater needs the money to ensure that the buildings are healthy then "I'm thinking we need to do that." Quick action is crucial, he added, because "this (mold) will scare people off. I'm extremely pleased they took immediate action to not only identify the problem but also to have a solution."
"My feeling is the management of the Playhouse has become much more professional and the problems we're talking about go back a long time," said Sheryl Jamerson. "And I feel like this is something we can get through.... I can't imagine Flat Rock without the Playhouse."