Performing arts venues in Lima: How are they doing?

LIMA — With the opening in December of the state-of-the-art Marathon Center for the Performing Arts in Findlay, Limaland now has four cultural venues within a 40-mile radius offering music, dance and theater.

The Marathon Center, the Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center in Lima, the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert, and the Freed Center for the Performing Arts in Ada have a similar mission — to enrich people’s lives through the arts — but each goes about it in different ways.

The wrap-up of the traditional September-to-May indoor cultural season offers an opportunity to assess our region’s performing arts centers.

What is success?

First, let’s define “success.” Typically, in our bottom-line, results-oriented corporate mindset, it translates into dollars. Is this organization making money? Is it supporting itself?

That’s an unfair question for performance spaces, convention centers and stadiums. Ticket sales alone rarely cover their operational needs and expenses. All the performing arts centers in the region rely on outside support to make ends meet. Where they get that money depends upon how they’re structured, and each one is different.

The Allen County-owned Civic Center gets 30 percent of its funding from taxpayer dollars, including a portion of the county’s lodging tax, which was raised last year to help finance improvements. The Freed Center’s operational costs are covered by Ohio Northern University, while the Niswonger, owned by the Van Wert school system, is operated by a foundation with a $1.7 million endowment. The Marathon is a stand-alone nonprofit, which will rely on ticket sales and sponsors for revenue.

“It’s not apples to apples in any way, shape or form,” said Cindy Wood, director of the Civic Center. With each space, she said, “you have a radically different mathematical equation governing your ticketing and your choices.”

The Veteran: Veterans Memorial Civic & Convention Center

The hulking, 32-year-old Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center sits in the center of Lima like a concrete bull’s-eye, the target of criticism since civic leaders first started talking about building something to replace the limited and now-closed Memorial Hall.

People complain about its programming. Commissioners of Allen County, which owns the Civic Center, have complained about its finances.

Others, like Commissioner Cory Noonan, say it’s an asset and worth continued efforts to help it thrive, like the hiring last year of a marketing director and increased funding from the lodging tax increase to pay for improvements.

“That facility is an important piece to Lima/Allen County,” he said.

For without the 1,728 seats in Crouse Performance Hall, the largest in the region, there would be no home for the Lima Symphony Orchestra. And Lima would be just another piece of fly-over country for, if not top-tier A-List events, then middle-tier acts such as country legend Merle Haggard, Christian music up-and-comers Parmalee and Big Daddy Weave and The Beach Boys.

“The only one I’ve used is the Lima Civic Center,” said California-based promoter Peter Kernan, who brought The Beach Boys to town. “It has enough seats to give us to cover expenses and make a profit on the other end of it. It’s got good acoustics, a nice big stage, parking and it’s a block from Kewpee Hamburgers.”

Wood said she measures the success of the Civic Center by whether it’s hitting its revenue targets. And Crouse Performance Hall outperformed in 2015, booking $140,021 in rentals against a goal of $125,000.

Wood, who’s resigning April 13 to work for The Ohio State University in Mansfield, said she leaves the Veterans Memorial Civic Center on more stable financial footing than when she arrived in 2009, on the heels of a fiscal crisis. Then, she said, it barely had enough money from month to month to meet expenses.

“Now,” she said, “we have sustained funding and a two-and-a-half-month cash flow reserve.”

But challenges remain. Wood said the facility needs improvements to its sound system to stay up to date with the demands of bigger traveling shows. And the tired, utilitarian interior could use an update.

“We’re not meeting ambience and decor expectations,” she said, citing industry surveys. “There’s room for improvement.”

Finding its footing: Freed Center for the Performing Arts

At 550 seats, the Freed Center for the Performing Arts at Ohio Northern University in Ada is the smallest venue, but it was never intended to be the kind of regional draw the other three aim to be. It was built 25 years ago to give ONU’s theater, dance, music and communications arts students a place to develop their skills.

“It’s an opportunity, fundamentally, for individuals to develop their own talents,” said Dr. DeBow Freed, president emeritus at ONU, who lobbied for a performing arts center during his tenure as president and for whom the facility is named.

In this mission, it succeeds. The Freed bustled with student productions this year, including symphonic concerts, the play “Picnic” by William Inge, and the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which opens next weekend. There’s also “Holiday Spectacular,” an annual Christmas tradition that draws hundreds of families from Ada and beyond.

But those students will not benefit much if they play to an empty house, and that’s where the Freed has been struggling. Attendance has declined, as students turn to their cellphones for entertainment. Ticket sales are down, though interim Director Jerica Humphrey said she expects to hit her goal of $55,000 once the books are closed on the 2015-2016 season.

“It’ll be the first time in the four years I’ve been” here, she said.

Four years is a long time for Humphrey to be in an interim role, but it suggests the Freed is still trying to find its footing after a major reorganization of its theater arts and communications departments four years ago. At that time, the Freed was managed by the chair of the Department of Theater Arts, but those responsibilities were split when the former chair retired.

President Dan DiBiasio said the restructuring was necessary to respond to changes in enrollment and academic disciplines.

During the reorganization, the Freed’s programming budget was cut from $300,000 to $200,000. Humphrey uses the money to bring in eight shows that are intended to draw a wider audience beyond campus. This year saw Sven, a hip-hop violinist, magician Jason Bishop and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” with Peter Gros.

“I try to bring in an animal show each year,” Humphrey said.

She said hopes someday to do more, to bring 10 to 12 shows to the Freed like before. There are encouraging signs, like that first-in-four-years revenue target being met. And DiBiasio said enrollment, down by about 65 students, shows signs of increasing this fall.

Envious endowment: Niswonger Performing Arts Center

Talk to anyone involved in arts venue management in the region, and they’ll speak with a hint of envy about the Niswonger Performing Arts Center. Like the Freed, the Niswonger is a performance facility for a school system. Unlike the Freed, it has a big endowment.

It also has a slew of corporate sponsors, such as Statewide Ford Dealership, Wert Federal Savings Bank and Wal-Mart. Marketing Director Tafi Stober said corporate sponsorship has grown by 50 percent in the last three years.

“They believe in what the Niswonger is all about,” she said.

That kind of money gives the Niswonger options that the other venues don’t have. It has the financial strength to book top-tier acts for its size, including Christian pop sensations Natalie Grant and MercyMe and the Broadway hit “Mamma Mia!” while keeping ticket prices around $25. It also allows the Niswonger to take programming risks with spoken word programs and jazz.

“We’ve got a lot of comments from a lot of people in Lima area who say we love to come to the Niswonger because you get some things that we enjoy,” Executive Director Paul Hoverman said. “We get the same thing from Fort Wayne, [Indiana], and we’ll regularly get people from Dayton.”

While the other venues work with constrained or reduced budgets, the Niswonger’s is growing, from $1.1 million last year to $1.2 million this year. Ticket sales are increasing, too. Hoverman said they were $756,000 last year and will be around $820,000 this year.

“Ticket sales actually support our budget by nearly 70 percent, which is amazing,” he said.

The secret to the Niswonger’s success? Vigorous promotion and sponsorship recruitment.

“We earn it by going out and selling our product,” Hoverman said.

New kid on the block: Marathon Center for the Performing Arts

When catastrophic flooding of the Blanchard River damaged Central Middle School in downtown Findlay, civic leaders saw an opportunity. They proposed taking the school’s Art Deco-styled 1939 auditorium and turning it into a cultural center that would enhance the community’s standing and cement its relationship with Marathon Petroleum Corp. and other top employers.

It’s too soon to tell whether the Marathon Center for the Performing Arts will achieve those goals. It’s not even finished with its inaugural season, which got a late start in mid-December.

But there are promising signs. Nearly all of the 12 shows this season exceeded attendance and revenue goals, according to Marketing Director Kathleen Stacy. That included the Toledo Symphony, the Moscow Festival Ballet and Journey Unauthorized, a tribute band. Tickets are also going fast for Chicago, a soft rock group from the 1970s.

This is good, because the Marathon got off on a shaky start with its opening show, “The Toy Shoppe,” a Christmas musical written by Kenny Rogers and featuring Alan Thicke.

“We had a lot of great positive comments,” she said. “We also had people who said, ‘I was expecting something different.’ They tell you, and we need to listen.”

The Marathon Center has conducted a marketing survey that Stacy said will inform next season’s offerings and shape pricing, which, at $35 to $45 a ticket, is the highest in the area.

“We do need to have more price points,” Stacy said. “Again, it’s a learning process. We haven’t been in business.”

Too many venues?

None of the other venues’ directors expressed concern that they’d lose business as a result of the addition of the Marathon Center.

“We’re a smaller venue,” said the Freed’s Jerica Humphrey. “They’re able to do things we can’t do because their house is larger.”

Wood said her competition is other publicly owned pformance hall/convention centers, not a stand-alone nonprofit theater such as the Marathon.

And the Niswonger? Of all the performing arts centers in the region, it’s the one most likely to compete with the Marathon Center for artists and eyeballs. Chicago, for example, would have been an easy fit at the Niswonger, which hosted Air Supply in January.

Paul Hoverman said he views the Marathon’s presence as an opportunity rather than a threat.

“I think we are getting more saturated, but I also hope we develop more arts audiences,” he said. “With more options, this is a possibility.”

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Gospel music great CeCe Winans’s photo hangs on the wall with other past performers at the Freed Center for the Performing Arts. Photo | Amy Eddings.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_performing-arts-center-freed-center-wall.jpgGospel music great CeCe Winans’s photo hangs on the wall with other past performers at the Freed Center for the Performing Arts. Photo | Amy Eddings.

Interim director Jerica Humphrey, outside the Freed Center for the Performing Arts in Ada. Photo supplied.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_performing-arts-center-jerica-humphrey2.jpgInterim director Jerica Humphrey, outside the Freed Center for the Performing Arts in Ada. Photo supplied.

Cindy Wood, executive director of the Veterans Memorial Civic Center in Lima, backstage at Crouse Hall.Photo | Amy Eddings.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_performing-arts-cindy-wood.jpgCindy Wood, executive director of the Veterans Memorial Civic Center in Lima, backstage at Crouse Hall.Photo | Amy Eddings.

Interim director Jerica Humphrey, outside the Freed Center for the Performing Arts in Ada. Photo supplied.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_performing-arts-jerica-humphrey.jpgInterim director Jerica Humphrey, outside the Freed Center for the Performing Arts in Ada. Photo supplied.

Kathleen Stacy, marketing director of the Marathon Center for the Performing Arts in Findlay. Photo | Amy Eddings.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_performing-arts-kathleen-stacy.jpgKathleen Stacy, marketing director of the Marathon Center for the Performing Arts in Findlay. Photo | Amy Eddings.

Paul Hoverman, executive director of the Niswonger Center for the Performing Arts. Photo | Amy Eddings.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_performing-arts-paul-hoverman-2.jpgPaul Hoverman, executive director of the Niswonger Center for the Performing Arts. Photo | Amy Eddings.

Paul Hoverman, executive director of the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert. Photo | Amy Eddings.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_performing-arts-paul-hoverman.jpgPaul Hoverman, executive director of the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert. Photo | Amy Eddings.

Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_performing-arts-story-niswonger-exterior-shot.jpgNiswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert.

Merle Haggard performs at Veterans Memorial Civic Center in Lima in October. The Civic Center faces competition from performing arts centers in Ada, Findlay and Van Wert for both acts and patrons.
http://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2016/04/web1_CivicCenter-MerleHaggardFile.jpgMerle Haggard performs at Veterans Memorial Civic Center in Lima in October. The Civic Center faces competition from performing arts centers in Ada, Findlay and Van Wert for both acts and patrons. Dennis Saam | The Lima News, File
Opening of Marathon Center in Findlay brings more choices, competition

By Amy Eddings

[email protected]

•Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center, Crouse Performance Hall

7 Town Square, Lima.

Box Office: 419-224-1552 or http://limaciviccenter.com.

Size: 1,784 seats

Opened: 1984

Cost: $8 million

Owned by: Allen County

Operated by: Veterans Memorial Civic Center board of directors

Leadership: Cindy Wood, director. She leaves April 13.

Budget, 2015: $1 million

Rental revenue, 2015: $140,021

•Niswonger Performing Arts Center

10700 state Route 117 S, Van Wert

Box Office: 419-238-6722 or http://npacvw.org.

Opened: 2007

Cost: $10 million

Size: 1,200 seats

Owned by: Van Wert City Schools

Operated by: Van Wert Area Performing Arts Foundation

Leadership: Paul Hoverman, executive director

Budget, 2015: $1.1 million

Ticket sales, 2015: $756,000

Competitive advantage: The $10 million NPAC was financed by government grants and private donors, led by native son, businessman and philanthropist Scott Niswonger. It was gifted, debt-free, to the Van Wert City Schools.

•Freed Center for the Performing Arts

Ohio Northern University, 525 S. Main St., Ada

Box Office: 419-772-1900 or http://onu.edu/freed.

Size: 550 seats

Opened: 1991

Cost: $6.7 million

Owned by: Ohio Northern University

Operated by: Ohio Northern University

Leadership: Jerica Humphrey, interim director

Budget, 2015: $200,000

Ticket sales, 2015: $60,000

•Marathon Center for the Performing Arts

200 W. Main Cross St., Findlay

Box Office: 419-423-2787 or http://marathoncenterarts.org.

Size: 1,000 seats

Opened: 2015

Cost: $18.2 million

Owned by: Marathon Center for the Performing Arts is a stand-alone 501c(3) nonprofit arts organization

Leadership: Jennifer Deja, interim executive director

Budget, 2015-2016: $1 million

Projected ticket sales, 2015-2016: $500,000

Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or Twitter @lima_eddings.