ES looks at ensuring survival of auditorium

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 ~ Updated 4:57 PM

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Can the Eureka Springs Auditorium -- the Aud -- survive, and how can that be managed?

Those were questions covered at a special City Advertising and Promotion Commission (CAPC) workshop called by Executive Director Jim Williams last week. Mayoral candidate Beverly Blankenship requested the meeting because, she said, as a current member of both city council and the CAPC, she needed to understand both sides of the issue. CAPC spent close to $100,000 to manage the Aud this year, and as a CAPC commissioner she said she needs to ask if it's in the best interests of the CAPC to continue that.

As a council member she said she is not happy there are so few performances, and wants to know what it would cost the city to take over the Aud and keep it open. "And, could the city do a better job if it took the Aud over?" she asked.

CAPC commissioners, several council members, a number of mayoral candidates and several residents attended the workshop.

Williams told the group he took the view the Aud had been given to the CAPC by city council under a resolution that ordered the CAPC to take it.

"That wasn't legal," he said, "because council can't order how CAPC spends its money."

Negotiations followed which left the CAPC managing the Aud, while the city pays maintenance and utility bills.

"It's not true that I want to close the Aud," Williams said, "but I'm not happy with the budget amount going towards it." He said more money from the CAPC's budget should be going toward advertising and promoting the city.

The CAPC paid for a facility study, which showed the structure needs between one-half and three-quarters of a million dollars to bring it up to standards for historic buildings. Several ADA safety issues were also noted in the study. Williams said the CAPC had the study done so the city could see what the Aud needs to survive. He pointed out that grant money had been obtained and some renovations made, but added those were mostly cosmetic.

Regarding questions about CAPC employees at the Aud, Williams noted the Aud has only one full time employee, Nancy Baptiste, whose role is to answer the phone, "which rings there constantly. She quotes rental prices for the facility and makes bookings. She trains volunteers to serve as ushers for events, then schedules them as needed. She's also there to monitor tourists who tour the building, and she keeps an eye on maintenance."

"There has to be vigilance with the building," Baptiste added. "Things are always going wrong."

If the Aud could host big name acts, it might pay for itself, but part of the problem with booking the Aud is the limited seating. Venues seating large crowds can divide the cost of an act among the patrons, keeping ticket costs fairly low. With fewer than 1,000 seats to sell, prices for expensive big name acts at the Aud would be astronomical, Williams said.

Williams also said there are not as many groups traveling as there used to be, and we now have several performing arts centers in northwest Arkansas that compete with the Aud.

Blankenship said council has to decide to renew the contract with the CAPC for the facility, and she was trying to understand what the CAPC was paying for, to which Williams responded, "CAPC gets stuff the city can't do. Too much of our money is going towards the Aud, shorting advertising. The city wants the Aud to operate, but the city has some budget problems and not the money to do it.

"I'm trying to back the CAPC out of this slowly. I want to keep the facility open, but not put the cost totally on either group," he said.

At that point, former mayor Beau Zar Satori stood up at the back of the room and said, "Mr. Williams' goal is to back out of the Aud. I'd terminate his contract right here. The CAPC doesn't do promotion, just advertising. Less is being done every year."

Alderman and commissioner Joyce Zeller responded by saying, "Enough already of what's wrong! No one wants to lose the Aud."

She acknowledged the problem is the Aud is not making enough money, and said the CAPC needs a marketing plan and promotion to keep it going, pointing out that the known demographic for shows at the Aud is the Boomer generation. She said the trick is to attract performers to do shows that will succeed.

"We need to try and keep the Aud open for another year," she added.

Alderman Mickey Schneider proposed convincing promoters of both the fine acoustics of the hall, and the "feel good" of performing in Eureka.

Williams said he is talking to booking agents and managers, but they are interested more in money than feel goods; still, he is working with agents who have booked acts here before, as they are more inclined to bring other acts here.

Baptiste said a lot of community events take place at the Aud, and rental rates are inexpensive. But given the size limits of the Aud, "We're probably not going to see a lot of big names from all around," she said.

Blankenship's summation of the workshop information was simple but not easy:

"It feels like the CAPC will have to budget more for shows to keep the Aud going," she said.

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