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Increased regional competition presents growing challenge for historic State Theatre

By Kevin Lechiski, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 16 2012 09:44:13 AM CST
Updated On: Nov 16 2012 09:46:06 AM CST
State Theatre

State Theatre for the Performing Arts, Easton

EASTON, Pa. -

Increased regional competition in attracting top tier acts is presenting a growing challenge for the iconic nonprofit State Theatre.

In recent decades, bidding for top tier acts has increased radically with the growth in the number of performing arts venues in the region, forcing the non-profit downtown Easton theater to go up against larger for-profit entities, according to State Theatre representatives.

In an effort to better position itself competitively, the State Theatre is asking County Council to increase its yearly county grant -- given with revenue from hotel tax money -- from $25,000 to $60,000 for 2013.

Representatives of the State Theatre gave a detailed presentation on the challenges the non-profit organization is facing during Thursday night’s County Council meeting.

Council will decide whether to approve the increased grant request during either its Dec. 6 or 13 meeting, said Council President John Cusick.

Shelley Brown, the theatre’s president and CEO, said it is important the theatre continues to thrive, for both its patrons and the City of Easton, which receives numerous economic benefits as a result of the theatre’s operation.

Brown said the theatre has had to substantially increase its payments to attract top tier acts in recent years. Between paying the acts and stagehands and advertising, Brown said a show can cost the theater up to $150,000, leaving little revenue in the theater’s pockets.

“We have big players with deep pockets to compete against, which is a big challenge for a nonprofit theatre,” she stated.

The theater, which in a typical year hosts 80-100 performances, helps fill local restaurants on performance nights, adds tens of thousands of dollars to the city’s yearly parking revenues, and contributes more than six figures per year to a local amusement tax. The theater has paid more than $1 million to the City of Easton since the amusement tax went into effect in 2006, Brown said.

Denise Smith, the theater’s vice president of development, estimates the theater produces a yearly local economic impact of about $8 million.

In addition to the increased competition, Brown and Smith also noted the large expenses associated with maintaining a historic structure like the State Theatre.

Smith noted that ticket revenue covers only two-thirds of the theater’s expenses. The other third is funded by a combination of memberships, sponsors and grants.

Councilman Bruce Gilbert praised the theater, saying that what it “has done statistically compared to other non-profit theaters is amazing.” Gilbert said the theater has been a key cog in a resurgence of downtown Easton.

Gilbert noted the especially important role he says the theater plays in promoting the performing arts among teens through its annual Freddy Awards program. “Art students finally have a venue to celebrate their successes” in a local climate that tends to be dominated by high school sports, Gilbert said.

“This is not just about the State Theatre; it’s about the community as whole,” Gilbert said. “I hope we can do something to help.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Ron Angle, a former county councilman, said he is concerned top employees in many nonprofits, including the State Theatre, have excessive salaries. He criticized council members for not bringing up this issue during the discussion.