Passion Play escapes closure; group details plans for reviving it in 2013
EUREKA SPRINGS -- Pastor Randall Christy of the Gospel Station Network met with a crowd of cold but curious onlookers atop the bleachers of the Passion Play amphitheater Thursday at noon to detail his group's plans to renovate and reopen the Great Passion Play the first weekend in May.
Thursday's press conference followed a 10-day fundraising blitz in which Christy, his group's radio stations, its listeners and Passion Play supporters from all over raised just over $75,000 to pay the minimum amount due to stop the Passion Play's permanent closure.
Flanked by microphones and TV cameras, Christy said the money had been deposited at Cornerstone Bank that morning.
"Literally hundreds of people gave online, many more than once," Christy said. "Although we had three or four $5,000 donors, most people donated what they could -- $20, $30 at a time. My phone was clicking with one donation after another. It was one of the most amazing things I've seen in 27 years as a pastor."
Christy, whose radio network owns 25 FM, AM and online stations throughout the South and Midwest, said he and representatives of the Passion Play had worked out a 20-point plan to take the Play from its current near-bankrupt state to being a thriving attraction once more.
Details of plan
The 20-point plan -- which was only partially shared with the public Thursday -- includes reducing the schedule to three nights per week, and at least some staffing changes that are in the works, though those were not discussed on Thursday.
"The Gospel Station Network Board of Directors has donated $100,000 of advertising through our stations over the next 12 months," Christy said. "We are also co-partnering with a number of newspapers and other radio networks and large ministries to promote the play."
According to Passion Play Chairman of the Board Keith Butler, the next financial hurdle will be raising the needed $200,000 or so to cover operating costs so the play can begin its next season in May.
Christy said funding an aggressive marketing campaign "without a lot of money" is difficult, but the group plans on doing so using social media and co-partnering with other like-minded groups.
"The local Chamber of Commerce and CAPC are on board as well," he added.
The marketing plan includes partnering with several Eureka lodging facilities and other businesses to promote the Passion Play with an arrangement that would allow vendors to buy ticket packages at a reduced rate but be able to resell them at enough of an increased rate to make a profit of their own.
"We will co-promote those businesses as well through our radio network," Christy said. Although Christy said it was impossible to know how many listeners his stations average -- since many are frequented by online listeners, he noted -- he said the Gospel Station Network reaches "millions of people" in seven states. Additionally, their stations are available through apps for iPhone and Android.
"We have 80,000 listeners through those apps alone," Christy said. "That's a lot of people. And while we are a niche market, our audience is extremely loyal."
Other marketing goals include re-establishing the marketing relationship with Branson that had been strong in the past, including tour packages and other cross-promotional tools.
Big plans, big goals
Christy said the plan they have laid out to get the Play back on its feet includes the "Save-A-Seat" campaign. "Donate online $250, and you'll get a season ticket and a metal plaque for an individual seat, which can be designated in memory of a loved one or whatever the donor wishes it to say," Christy said. "We've done the math and feel we can raise $1 million that way."
The group's ultimate goal is to raise $6 million in the next 12 months to pay off the complete debt to the bank -- which totals just over $2.5 million -- and renovate the Passion Play thoroughly. "We will definitely bring back the Holy Land Tour," Christy said. "It is possible the various sets along the tour may be brought closer together so that it can be a walking tour rather than riding the trams, but that's down the road."
"On the week of March 18, during Spring Break, we will be bringing in members of our missions team from several affiliated churches to participate in the 'Save the Passion Play' mission trip," Christy said. "For the past six years they have gone to Mexico as part of their missions work, but this year they will be coming here to paint, clean, renovate the sets, anything we can do to get things ready for the next season."
Later renovation plans include erecting some form of awning over portions of the stadium to protect viewers from inclement weather and heat from the sun.
Christy confirmed a second "operations" note with the bank existed and was due to be paid monthly during the season, but he said that concern over whether that monthly debt could be paid had never been an issue, so long as the season proceeds as normal.
"People question your motives when money is involved, and I understand that," Christy said. "A lot of people have questioned why we would want to do this. My response is why wouldn't anybody want to do this? America needs the Gospel now more than ever. A lot of people want this to happen. Never in my 27 years with the church have I seen the level of giving that happened over the past 10 days. I believe God wants the Passion Play to continue."
Some on hand Thursday at the press conference were not too enthusiastic about the Gospel Station Network project as it has been developing.
Carroll County native and accomplished entrepreneur Bill L. Smith, a nationally known musician and founder of an international log cabin company based in Berryville, told Carroll County Newspapers that the Passion Play has been a tremendous asset and brand name enjoyed for generations in the area and that he would like to see it restored to its former glory.
"However, I feel it would be impossible to assess its current status without taking an informed business approach, including doing due diligence and research with background investigation into the past years' financial statements," Smith said. "Upon completion, an assessment of the huge dollar loss, potential brand-name damage and future merits of the Passion Play could be addressed. Assuming the assessment is positive, then consideration can be given to move forward with management and a board chosen that has experience in family Christian entertainment with a proven success record."
It is also imperative, Smith said, to have "sufficient, verified financial projections in place" to ensure the Play's success and longevity for the 2013 season's total operating costs, debt service, needed improvements, expansion, marketing, animals and payroll.
"Going forward, the management team must develop a marketing plan to capitalize on the property's potential to attract a 21st century audience," Smith added.
Much work to do
Multiple decisions need to be made in the next few weeks, Christy said, including issues of staffing and deciding on possible other uses for the facility when the play is not going on.
Already decided is that the Play will only be performed three days a week this year, Thursdays through Saturdays. Christy added that for opening weekend, ticket prices will be greatly reduced to fill the seats and get the season off to a good start.
Preliminary plans call for using the amphitheater for productions other than the play itself -- i.e., perhaps for concerts -- on the Play's off-nights, probably on Sundays and Wednesdays.
"Our plan is to work with big promoters who are used to filling the house and allow them to use the facility for a percentage of ticket sales," he said.
"We have one year and one shot at this, so we have to do it right," Christy added.
For more on this developing story, keep an eye on upcoming issues of the Lovely County Citizen, Facebook.com/lovelycountycitizen, and Carroll County News, Facebook.com/carrollcountynews.