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Moss column: The case for Playhouse support


If Henderson County faced the opportunity to land a corporation that promised to bring thousands of tourists to town, would it jump at the chance?

We know the answer is yes because it's already happened.
The corporation is Sierra Nevada. Beer obviously is Sierra Nevada's stock in trade but the big bonanza for Mills River and Henderson County will be tourism. Last spring Mills River Town Board members asked the brewery co-manager how many visitors the brewery might attract. Stan Cooper said knowing owner Ken Grossman's commitment to "the visitor experience" on the banks of the French Broad River, the tourism figure could be a very large number. "It will be," he said of the brewery, "a showcase for the world."
Did the Board of Commissioners recognize the potential?
You bet.
They agreed to tax incentives of $3.75 million — $1.375 million last year and $267,672 a year for the next five years.
As for our homegrown showcase for the world, our local elected leaders have issued a different answer: Come back when you don't need the money.
Hillary HartHillary HartWhen the Playhouse teetered on the brink of extinction a year ago, Playhouse leaders asked for help from the county commissioners. Instead, in a 4-1 vote, commissioners gave them the back of their hand. But for a parliamentary maneuver by Michael Edney to stall the board's action, the county would have reneged on half its $100,000 commitment to the Playhouse.
Since then, Playhouse leaders have done everything that business leaders, the political class and the donor class asked it to do.
It hired a fulltime chief financial officer, Hillary Hart, (the theater industry uses the term managing director), to get the fiscal house in order. Hart opened lines of communication from the financial office to the board's executive committee and finance committee. She ordered budget cuts and furloughs to stay within budget. She has been the answer to Playhouse critics' complaint that creative director Vincent Marini is surrounded by yes men. She has been the "no woman."
"She has made major, major strides in our back office," the new Playhouse president, Cliff Stalter, told the Lightning for our story last week. "We get up-to-date financial information that is credible and accurate. One other thing the board did that I think will go down as one of the major triumphs is that now there is a dual relationship. Hillary and Vincent both report to the board and they both have unfettered access."
The Playhouse has stepped up its outreach in a big way, thanks to the work of development director Lynn Penny and past president Bill McKibbin and other board members. In 2009, it raised only $300,000 a year from donors. This year it will take in just over $1 million and it has increased the total donors to 943, from 750 last year — two more metrics Playhouse critics said had to improve.
BillMcKibbinBill McKibbin"I think they've turned the corner," Rep. Chuck McGrady told me. "They've raised a lot of money. That wasn't a part of their culture three years ago. The product is a good one. They've got a new president coming in, which I think is a positive. The old folks have done well but you get tired. I don't know how Bill McKibbin has kept it all together over the last two years."
Me either. How has he?
"It's been really hard," McKibbin said. "I've learned an awful lot. I wouldn't want the same experience again but I also wouldn't trade the experience."


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