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Friends of theater make pitch to council

by Chris Schultz

July 19, 2012

Lake Geneva has no single center for the arts.

No single location exists that might house an art show, then a theatrical performance and then a film festival, or all three at once.

Friends of the Geneva Theatre want to fill that void.

Friends of Geneva Theater, now a registered tax exempt, nonprofit organization is focused on saving the Geneva Theatre, 244 Broad St., as a venue for the arts. The building was first opened in 1928, and was added to in 1975.

On July 9, the Friends made a formal presentation to the Lake Geneva City Council. Along with the presentation, each city council member and city official received a bound formal proposal with background and evidence totaling about 100 pages.

Included in the booklet were copies of letters from local business people supporting the project.

Their pitch: Give us $800,000 in Tax Increment Finance district funds, and we'll give you a remodeled building and a growing arts program that will make you proud.

John Gardner, town of Geneva, said arts have a positive impact on city finances.

He said the Friends' goal is to book Broadway shows and name entertainors, but it will also be a place for children's drama classes.

"What we are asking you to do is buy the building and we will worry about the funding," Gardner said.

The city would hold title to the building. Renovations and operations of the building would be in the hands of the Friends through a long-term lease.

And they came with some strong support, starting with Nancy Russell, former Lake Geneva alderwoman and chairman of the Walworth County Board.

Russell came to the point quickly. Many worthwhile changes have taken place in Lake Geneva since she and her family moved here in 1973, including creation of the Maple Park historic district, creation of the Lake Geneva Business Park and renovation of the Riviera lakehouse, all made possible by city council involvement, and, in the case of the Rivieria, investment of city TIF funds.

Russell said the Geneva Theatre can become a "central focal point" for the community.

"The theater purchase is the ideal use of TIF funds," Russell told the council. "Don't let this opportunity pass you by."

Also appearing for the Friends was author John Powers of Lake Geneva, who appealed to the council members' sense of posterity.

"Will future residents walk by Main Street where the theater used to be and see a cultural arts center that's benefited the community over the years, or will they see another parking lot," Powers asked.

There is one problem, said Ken Etten, architect and chairman of the Friends. Since it was first opened in 1928, the theater has acquired considerable social weight in the community.

"It was the heart and soul of the downtown where people came together," said Etten, who is also a member of the city's Historic Preservation Commission.

However, the building is a mess, Etten said. The roof leaks, the seats tend to collapse when sat upon and there are "other internal issues that need to be addressed as well."

According to the written proposal, the wiring and mechanical systems must be replaced. The theater balcony must be restored.

The 1975 addition is currently divided into two auditoriums. That space must be reconfigured (walls must be moved and removed) to configure flexible space for an art gallery, classroom, rehearsal space and banquet hall.

Plans also call for installation of an elevator.

The lobby area along the Broad Street entrance could be a site for a café which would offer preprogram and intermission refreshments as well as house ticket and souvenir sales.

The group is still deciding whether to save the original seats, Etten said.

Etten said it would cost $1.25 million to $1.5 million to renovate the building.

"This is only going to work if the Friends of Geneva Theatre can make it a community project," Etten said. "We can do it if we center it around the community."

The Friends' plan calls for donations, bequests and maybe some grants to pay for renovating the building and transforming it from an out-dated theater to a modern arts center.

Patrick M. Quinn of Lake Geneva promised that once the city of Lake Geneva paid the $800,000 for ownership of the building, it would not cost Lake Geneva "one red cent more" after purchasing the building.

But it is almost essential that the city commit its funds to the building to get the project going, Quinn said.

Quinn said he talked with would-be donors. He said their response was along the lines of "yes, we would be willing to commit money to the theater," except that the Friends do not own the building.

Those potential donors want to see if the city is willing to commit to the cultural arts center.

He said the Friends is confident that ticket sales, concessions, gifts and grants will make up the difference between what the city will pay for the building and what the group will need to turn the building into a working arts and meeting center.

Powers said finding people with the money to donate to the theater is not a problem.

"Obviously, there are a lot of unusually wealthy people who live within 20 miles of here," said Powers."The problem with our wealthy people is that they spend most of their time in Illinois, so their loyalties are divided."

"If the city doesn't show a commitment of at least $800,000, support may go away," he said.

However, former alderman Bill Huntress said that while the project sounds like a worthy one, he's not convinced the city should get involved.

"I'm not against anyone's hobby," he said during the July 9 meeting's public comment period.

Huntress predicted that by the time the theater were completely renovated, it would cost about $3 million.

"It's going to cost a lot of money over a long period of time," he said.

He said perhaps the Friends group could offer matching funds for the money from TIF.

Huntress also suggested an advisory referendum to determine how popular the project would be among the electors.

Huntress said that local real estate company owner Michael Keefe has not made an effort to buy the property.

Russ Hanula of Williams Bay, a Friends member, pointed out that Mike Keefe provided a letter of support for the project that was included in the booklets handed out to city officials.