Big investments planned for Lerner

The Lerner Theatre in downtown Elkhart opened to a full house in 2011 after its renovation. But time has taken its toll, the general manager said, and so the 2020 Lerner budget could see a 34 percent increase from 2019.Truth file photo 

ELKHART — The Lerner Theatre’s annual deficit is expected to almost triple in 2020 compared to what was planned for 2019 as the city makes additional investments in the historic downtown showpiece. 

According to the proposed budget, the theater is expected to cost the city $863,000 in 2020, whereas a loss of $292,000 was budgeted for 2019.

In addition, the not-for-profit organization Friends of The Lerner has asked the city for $500,000 for a fund that would pay for things such as emergency repairs.

The total 2019 budget is $1,232,000, while the requested budget for 2020 is $1,653,070. The 34% increase in total expenditures is largely due to repairs and replacements that are due, according to the theater’s general manager, Michelle Frank.

That includes new pipes for the organ, reroping the stage line sets and replacing a monitor.

Councilman Brian Thomas, R-2, said the need for replacements and repairs is a natural result of the time that has passed since the theater renovation was completed in 2011, as well as some corners that may have been cut when that was done. The renovation cost $18 million.

Council members Mary Olson, R-at large; Dwight Fish, D-4; and Brian Dickerson, R-at large, shared similar views, saying the council needs to live up to the commitment it made when it invested in the renovation.

Despite the deficit budgeted for 2019, the Lerner Theatre is looking at a potential surplus this year, according to the mayor’s chief of staff, Bradley Tracy. As of June 30, the theater had a $146,000 surplus for the year.

The theater had a $213,000 budget surplus in 2017 and a $141,000 deficit in 2018.

Also included in Frank’s request for 2020 is an increase in personnel education expenses to $22,750 from $5,000 this year.

Frank said that would pay for more staff going to conferences and gaining valuable knowledge. She said having more staff at theater conferences would also increase the chances of attracting new shows, as Lerner staff could more easily make face-to-face connections.

Her goal is a 6% increase in the number of shows at the theater in 2020. That would mean an additional eight shows, Frank said.

“That’s going to bring in box office fees, it’s going to bring in historical fees, convenience fees, it’s going to add to our concessions count, our merch count,” she said.

Members of the City Council, which will have to approve the budget for the theater and the other departments of the city, questioned why they should appropriate $500,000 to a Friends of The Lerner fund that the council would not control.

“If it’s just going to be expended, but from someone else, why wouldn’t we just add $500,000 to your budget?” David Henke, R-3, said.

Frank said Friends of the Lerner could produce the money faster than City Council if the theater were to have an emergency. She said the theater recently and unexpectedly lost its soundboard. Frank said the theater could not wait until the next City Council meeting to get money for a replacement.

“That’s where Friends of The Lerner was able to step in and say, ‘We have the $47,000, we’ll give it to you now, we just need that money back,’” Frank said.

However, Henke argued that City Council, if need be, can arrange meetings quickly and suspend its rules to pass an emergency funding measure in a single night. He said the council has about 16 emergency meetings per year.

Thomas told Henke that the process had worked well when Friends of the Lerner paid for the soundboard. He thinks the city needs to be willing to invest in its most visible brands, and if that can be done through the Friends of The Lerner fund, so be it.

“That term is better than saying ‘The council is too slow, we can’t pass things in emergency situations,’” Henke said.

Councilwoman Pam Kurpgeweit, R-6, shared Henke’s concern that the City Council would have no oversight over the Friend of the Lerner fund. She requested that expenses from the fund are reported back to the council.

Tracy said there are still discussions on the details of the fund’s operations, and that there have been multiple drafts of the proposal.

“More recent versions have added more opportunity for the council and the Mayor’s Office to be more involved on the front end of that so that it’s not just willy-nilly,” he said.

If the council does approve the funding for Friends of The Lerner, which has also raised private money for a different account to help the theater, the organization would ask the city to make reimbursements after emergency expenses have reached a certain level.

The City Council members, as the Finance Committee-of-the-Whole, passed both the Lerner Theatre budget and the appropriation to Friends of the Lerner with unanimous do-pass recommendations to the City Council, which is scheduled to adopt a 2020 budget on Oct. 14.

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus

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