This story continues to develop, and as reported on our website, a Gospel radio network was, as of early Monday, less than $25,000 away from its goal to raise enough money to stop the closure -- but the final deadline was fast approaching, as the deed given to Cornerstone Bank in lieu of foreclosure was due to become final Monday night, officials said. For the absolute latest on this developing story, read this week's Lovely County Citizen, distributed on Wednesday evening, or visit www.LovelyCitizen.com.
When the news about the approaching closure broke in early December -- and was first reported on Carroll County News' and the Citizen's websites -- President and CEO of Cornerstone Bank Charles T. Cross said the Passion Play would begin turning everything over to the bank in the next several days in what he described as an "amicable foreclosure."
"It is true that they are winding stuff down and will not be doing a 2013 season," Cross said. "We have been good, healthy partners with the Passion Play for quite some time. So while it's true they are in the process of conveying their assets, and the bank will be taking over in the next few weeks, it certainly isn't a foreclosure in the sense of our going in and taking over. They have reached the end of the road and are turning everything over to us."
A major tourist draw when it opened in July 1968, the play, which has a cast and crew of almost 200 local residents, experienced a dramatic drop in attendance during the past four years, leading to an appeal two months ago for donations to keep the Passion Play viable.
One employee told the Citizen that the largest attendance the Passion Play enjoyed in 2012 was about 1,000 people in one night over War Eagle Fair weekend; a few years ago, explained Ezra Hodgson, who worked sound for the play, attendance of 3,000 was routine, nearly filling up the venue's 4,000 seats.
Regardless, the play's recent appeal for help apparently was not successful, or not enough anyway.
Although neither officials with Cornerstone nor the Great Passion Play would confirm the amount of debt the Passion Play carries with Cornerstone, several sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told Carroll County Newspapers that the Passion Play owes approximately $1.2 million on which it cannot afford the mortgage payments.
In addition, according to the Carroll County Tax Assessors' office, the Passion Play currently owes $35,634.34 in back taxes and penalties on its property that includes nine parcels of land, as of Dec. 3.
At the time, Cross declined to discuss the Passion Play's exact debt load with his bank (which has since been confirmed to be a total of $2.8 million), but he said the bank is "comfortable" with the play's amount of debt, and the bank is hopeful they will either find someone to buy the property and reinvest in it, eventually re-opening the play, or find a buyer for the property who will create something new altogether that would also serve as a tourist draw for the area.
"Our goal at the bank is hopefully to find someone who can inject capital into it and continue to perpetuate the business in a way that would be helpful to the town," Cross said. "We're hoping we can find someone to sell it to who can enhance it and do those things to keep people employed and keep drawing visitors to Eureka Springs."
If a buyer is not found, the Passion Play's property and assets will be sold piece-meal to recoup the bank's investment.
Some assets already have been sold, apparently -- such as the animals. Numerous sources told CCN that the play had begun selling its stock of live animals used in the play as early as late November because it could no longer afford to feed them.
One vendor associated with the Passion Play, Randy Langhover of Randy's Brochures and Cosmic Cavern, who delivered the Great Passion Play's brochures for years, said on Dec. 3 that the play had cancelled its most recent order "because they said they wouldn't be there," he said. "They've sold off the animals, turned all the power off and locked the gate."
He added those who had given or lent artwork to the art display spaces on the grounds had been notified and had been coming by to pick up their work. "I donated their last brochure delivery, which was $300, to try and help out," Langhover said, adding that he hopes the new owners will allow visitors access to the grounds to see the statue.
Thrown into darkness
The statue he was referring to is the Christ of the Ozarks, which was in November plunged into darkness on its 167-acre home atop Magnetic Mountain for the first time in decades. After a fundraising effort for a newly established Lights Fund, Passion Play officials recently said, the lights were turned back on just before Christmas and will remain on for at least the next year, thanks to donations from supporters all over the region.
Dedicated in 1966, Christ of the Ozarks is said to be the second-largest Christ statue in the world and one of the most-visited attractions in the Ozarks. Standing 65.5 feet tall, it was the first project built on the Passion Play grounds by the Elna Smith Foundation, which operates the Great Passion Play.
It's been lighted at night for years, with the Passion Play grounds remaining open for visitors so they could see the statue, since it was founder Gerald Smith's dream that the statue be accessible and visible 24 hours a day.
The lights were shut off in mid-November, and at that time, the Passion Play officials told CCN it was a cost-saving measure. Turns out, it may have been more like a final measure.
But it may not turn out to be final, after all. Supporters of the play remain convinced that someone, somewhere, will be interested in buying the Passion Play and re-opening the play.
Cornerstone Bank Board of Directors Chairman John F. Cross said he had been an advocate of the play throughout its existence and has been in touch over the months with other entities that might be interested in taking it over.
Cross defended the Passion Play as not only a huge financial asset to Eureka Springs but a spiritual one as well.
"There's no way to quantify how many people have been saved through attending the play, and you can quote me on that," he said.
Neighbors of the Great Passion Play lamented the news.
"We want the spirit of Jesus to be present over our city," said Philip Wilson, pastor of First Christian Church on Passion Play Road. "Anything that enhances that is good. Anything that lessens that is unfortunate."