ELKHART — The city administration unveiled plans to boost staffing at The Lerner Theatre and fund it with redevelopment funds and support from the private sector.
Plans to hire as many as five more people is part of the SoMa revitalization effort and is aimed at improving the coordination of downtown activities for a range of entertainment activities, including the Elkhart Jazz Festival.
The increased personnel would also provide a much needed boost to the Lerner Theatre, which operates with just four full-time employees.
Officials hope to fund three of the positions with Tax Increment Financing revenues derived from the downtown economic development district. Money for the others would come from private support, according to Crystal Welsh, director of community development.
Welsh and David Smith, general manager of the Lerner, gave an impassioned presentation to the city council Wednesday night during its budget session.
The five positions include a downtown director, an administrative assistant, a marketing director, a volunteer events coordinator and facility operator.
Welsh said the events coordinator and facility operator would be paid with private funds and the others would be covered with TIF revenues.
Some of the positions would entail responsibilities outside of the Lerner and help in the transition of SoMa from a volunteer-based organization to one with staff support.
Some Republicans on the council expressed reservations about using TIF revenues for staffing and at least one, Mary Olson, questioned whether it would be a proper use of the money.
TIF dollars are traditionally used for economic development, but the definition has broadened in recent years.
Olson said she planned to research the issue more.
Welsh said after Wednesday’s meeting that her own salary is paid with TIF money and that using TIF dollars for staffing for some types of jobs is an accepted practice.
The council offered a tentative approval of the Lerner budget for 2014, which includes the new positions. The vote was 6-3, and even those who voted against it spoke highly of the impact the Lerner has had in its first three years since being renovated and renamed from the Elco Theatre.
Smith told council members his full-time staff is overworked and the Lerner is under-utilized.
Smith said people often compare the Lerner to the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend in terms of potential, but pointed out that the Morris employs 14 full-time workers.
While Brian Dickerson, David Henke and Olson tentatively opposed the budget plan, fellow Republican Brian Thomas, who serves on the Lerner governing board, described his support for funding the staff positions with TIF dollars as “lukewarm.”
He said he wanted to research the issue more, but joined with Mayor Dick Moore in expressing hope that the Lerner will eventually become self-sufficient.
“It’s made an impact ... it’s exciting to watch,” Thomas said. “Whatever we can put into place to get closer and closer and closer to that zero, I’ll always be satisfied with,” Thomas said.
Added Olson, “If I’m not supportive right now — because I’m seeking answers — don’t take it personally.”
The staffing would help satisfy SoMa’s plans to further solidify the downtown arts and entertainment district.
Representatives of SoMa contend a better marketing and coordination of downtown events is needed.
Welsh pointed out that Smith is already heavily involved in Jazz Fest.
“We consider the success of the Lerner as part of the SoMa initiative and the downtown TIF. That’s the plan. Redevelopment of downtown. What better example of redevelopment of downtown Elkhart is there besides the Lerner? It is the shining example of what we can do,” Welsh said.
Part of the problem that limits the Lerner is that as a municipally owned facility, the Lerner depends on promoters to propose shows for the facility. Unlike other venues that are not municipally operated, city officials are unwilling to gamble with tax dollars to bring in shows at the risk of possibly losing money.
Officials are looking into establishing a private fund that could, among other things, put the Lerner in a better position to attract more entertainment.
In addition to the Lerner budget, the council reviewed and tentatively OK’d more than a dozen other department budgets.
The council will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday to review 14 other budgets and conduct a formal public hearing on the proposed $54 million budget for 2014.