In Oregon, Pricey But Worth It

EUGENE, Ore. -- The Hult Center for the Performing Arts remains a community treasure despite ongoing financial concerns during its 25-year history.

Ed Ragozzino, a former drama teacher and community theater director who helped raise money for the striking six-story building, didn't hesitate when asked whether it was worth the considerable effort and expense. He called the arts center "a mark of a grown-up city."

"A city needs to take care of emotional needs as well as physical needs," he said.

Like Modesto's new Gallo Center for the Arts, the Hult center is downtown. Situated less than two miles from the University of Oregon but unrelated to the college, the Eugene venue has three theaters plus a gallery and serves as home for eight resident companies.

It sells about 150,0000 to 175,000 tickets a year and is home to high school graduations, parties and other events.

"It is definitely the community living room," said Laura Niles, the city's interim cultural services director.

As with the Modesto center, which is opening $14 million in debt, the Hult center needed to take out bonds to complete construction. The Hult finally retired its $18.5 million in bonds 16 years after it opened, celebrating with a public "bond burning" party.

While the center began like Gallo as a major presenter, staging 30 to 50 shows a season, it switched several years ago to serving primarily as a rental facility. This means that outside promoters, rather than the arts center, book and pay for the majority of the acts.

Of the 400 to 500 events held every year at the Hult, only a small portion are sponsored by the arts center.

"We only present and take a risk on about 12 shows a year now, and those are eclectic things that are important to do," operations manager Mark Loig-man said.

Gallo presenting more events

By comparison, the Gallo center is presenting about 65 of the 105 events scheduled in its first season. It is renting its theaters to its four resident companies and is willing to rent it to anyone else able to afford its fees. Like the Hult, the Gallo is available for parties, corporate events and other private functions.

In an interview with The Register-Guard newspaper a couple of years ago, Eugene's former cultural services director, Robb Hankins, said the Hult center took a major financial blow in 1998 when it lost $800,000 after a property tax measure passed.

At one point, there was discussion of mothballing the facility, but it was decided that it would be more costly for the city to keep it inactive than active, Niles added.

The center operates on a $4 million budget, with $1.5 million coming from the hotel-motel room tax revenues and the general fund. The rest comes from tickets, fees and rentals.

The Hult has been in the red for years because costs have risen faster than revenues, particularly in regard to employee salaries, Niles said. The center is required to have a minimum of two months' operating expenses in reserve but is below that now, Niles said.

Interestingly, the center might be the only performing arts venue in the country prohibited from fund-raising. The city made the arrangement years ago out of deference to local performing groups worried about competition for funds. Recently, the city decided to look into establishing a private-public trust to secure its future.

Lisa Lawton, community relations director for the Convention and Visitors Association of Lane County, said the center is a huge draw for visitors. One of the top 10 items requested of her organization is information about arts events, entertainment and festivals.

"It's something visitors are demanding, and we're pleased we can offer," she said.

Karin Clarke said she chose to open her self-named gallery in downtown Eugene five years ago in large part because of its proximity to the Hult center. The center has brought her the exact type of customers she wants: educated people with disposable incomes who like the finer things in life. She also has made sales to touring artists. Not along ago, a choreographer from the Dance Theatre of Harlem bought some pieces of art from her shop.

In Modesto, the Chartreuse Muse gallery moved from its old H Street address to 10th Street to be closer to the Gallo center for the same reasons.

But the arts center isn't a magic bullet to cure all downtown ills, cautioned Sally Dietrich, who owns several several downtown Eugene businesses, including Opus Gallery. Local businesses have to work to- gether to create fun events. Monthly art gallery walks, such as those in Eugene and Modesto, are a good start. Also, the arts center has to work hard to get the word out about what it has to offer.

"You have to market everything," she said. "Nothing is solved by building it and hoping people show up."

Restaurants nearby praise the Hult for bringing them more customers. And it's not just the fancy, arty restaurants who are getting more business. Joggers' BBQ Grill, stocked with pool tables and video games, gets a significant number of arts center patrons, drawing the most when the center is holding a comedy act or classic rock.

"It's a huge benefit to be across the street," said owner Tom Hopkins, adding that it's worth paying higher rent for the location.

While Rock-n-Rodeo Charros Restaurant, also across the street, doesn't get a lot of business from the Hult, it doesn't hurt, said manager Barbara Whitehorse. She said the Hult has been an asset for the city.

"They're very community-oriented," she said. "They do a lot for children. They also involve the local schools and amateur entertainment groups."

Many young people perform in community theater shows at the Hult center and visit the venue for youth performances. The center also has a "kid critic" program that encourages children to review performances, Niles said.

"We know the audiences of the future are dependent on what's happening with youth today," she said.

Local performing groups can expect to struggle at first with increased expenses for rent, stagehands and technologically advanced equipment, she said. Ragozzino added that local groups have to dramatically step up their game with better sets and costumes if they hope to compete with touring shows at a new arts center.

"The honeymoon is over after they've been in there two or three times," he said.

Stepping up their game

Modesto's Central West Ballet, a Gallo center resident company, is well aware that it needs to step up its game. The company has made a commitment to invest in better backdrops for the transition to the center. Its operating budget will climb to $750,000 this season, up from $525,000 last season.

"You can't just get by with minimal staging," Artistic Director René Daveluy said in June. "You can't put a piece of tin foil on the stage."

John Alvord, a key leader in the drive to get the Hult center built, is "guardedly hopeful" about its long-term future. He is concerned that the community takes it for granted and is not doing enough to ensure its survi-val.

"It's a great economic engine, but it has to be oiled," he said.

Despite his worries, though, he has no regrets about helping bring Eugene the venue.

"A civilization without art is no civilization at all," he said. "In transmitting our culture from one generation to another, art is a central part. Generations have to be educated in the arts. It's as simple as breathing."

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or lmillegan@modbee.com.

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