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City officials get early start mulling Auburn's lease on Auburn Avenue Theater
The City's lease on the Auburn Avenue Theater may be seven years from expiring, but City officials are already looking ahead, wondering what to do about the building when 2020 comes on.
Auburn's Finance Director Shelley Coleman explained Monday why the City's Planning and Community Development Committee decided to take up the subject so early.
And it's not about a crisis.
"We're about halfway through our 15-year-lease, so we need to think about our program needs, where we are going to go with it and start planning now for what we're going to do when the lease is up," Coleman said.
"The purpose of this in PCD planning was to start the conversation about what we are going to do going forward," said Councilman John Holman.
The Auburn Avenue Theater building, which began life as a garage or bus depot circa 1914, was not exactly in the shippiest of shapes in 2005 when the City entered into its lease with J.B. Douglas, whose family for years had operated the building as a theater.
At the time, Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis said, he signed the lease to attract new development to the City. Development, he said, citing studies, is drawn to downtowns with vibrant, after-hours lives, and a theater in Auburn's core, he said, could supply exactly that.
In the first year of the City's lease, various obstacles, including winter storms, a roof badly in need of reinforcement, and insurance claims slowed progress and salted some of the early optimism.
Some people from the community hotly criticized the lease as a waste of money.
But with time — and especially in the last two seasons — said Daryl Faber, director of Auburn Parks, Arts and Recreation, the City has discovered how to fill the seats.
It's the young folks.
When Parks, Arts and Recreation launched a Youth Theater camp several years back, Faber said, it found its most enthusiastic and largest audiences among kids eager to learn about performing and set-making. The two-to-three children's shows the camp stages every year sell out, Faber said.
Comedy and tribute bands are popular.
The recent stab at a film series, ehh, not so popular, said Faber, adding, however, that the City will continue to try new things to see what else works.
Here are some of the financial figures for 2012:
• Between the $75,000 yearly lease, salaries and sundry costs, the City spent $474,105 on the theater.
• Theater goers spent about $23 at restaurants or gas stations, for example, when they came to shows at the Ave. Between those purchases and local sales taxes and state taxes, those who caught the shows brought about $29,000 to $33,000 to the City in some form of revenue.
• Total attendance at the theater was 11,000 people in 2012, up from about 10,000 in 2011.
Councilwoman Largo Wales, formerly an administrator with the Auburn School District, was impressed.
"The exciting thing about that is, having worked in the schools where they have theaters and do art for presentations, this venue of theater art is different from what we do in schools. The schools do it class by class, and you get an hour. This is just a unique opportunity that's not provided anywhere else in the community," Wales said.
But Wales had her concerns, too.
"We're paying $75,000 a year for this facility, we are responsible for all of the ongoing maintenance and the repairs and everything else. At the end of the 15 years, we have nothing. And we need, as a council, to decide what is our comittment to, first of all, a local, whatever size, theater. Then, are we interested in one in this area? And if we are, at this specific location or another location? With the way property is now, and other things, it's best to be doing bargaining and looking at those things when the market is low and when we are not into crisis. This is a major part of our parks program that easily serves 12,000 people, if you include the participants. And that would be a significant loss to our parks programs," Wales said.