Bar Harbor’s Criterion Theater group unveils new plan to make operations viable

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff
Posted March 10, 2011, at 8:38 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — With the goal of leaving behind the rancor and financial problems that plagued the organization the past few years, a local theater nonprofit group has unveiled a new business and restructuring plan.

The Criterion Theater and Arts Center, which operates in the Criterion Theater building on Cottage Street, is looking to implement some elements of the plan right away, though other aspects will take more time to establish, according to General Manager Joseph “Tom” Burton. The Criterion is scheduled to reopen for the season on April 1 with two live New Surry Theater productions of the A.R. Gurney comedy “Sylvia,” he said Thursday.

Burton, who started in his job this past October, said the purpose of posting the plan and the theater’s budget on the theater website is to make the theater’s operations as public as possible. The theater needs to raise money in order to make its lease payment obligations, he said, and theater officials want to make sure donors know how their money is being put to use.

Part of the theater’s recent problems include a marquee reconstruction project that reportedly cost $150,000, difficulty in making rent payments to the building owner, and the walkout last summer of the former manager and his staff. The theater group was in danger of being evicted last summer because of late rental payments until it reached a negotiated agreement with Erin Early-Ward, who owns the building.

Burton said the first of the theater’s five 2011 lease payments of $10,000 each is not due until July 1, but that the theater is trying to raise $10,000 in operating capital so it can open its doors on April 1.

By posting the 31-page business plan and the 53-page budget online, Burton said, theater officials hope to bring more focus to their operations and to give the community a sharper sense of collective ownership for the historic structure. Community involvement through volunteerism, memberships and patronage are key to the group’s eventual goal of buying the building from Early-Ward, he said.

“Granted, we’re going to have to crawl before we walk and walk before we run,” Burton said. “The theory is to be as transparent as possible.”

The plan includes demographic and market information and goals for grant writing, sponsorship, membership and internship programs. Financial information such as projected cash flow, debt structuring, forecasts and summaries also are in the plan.

Aside from raising money, Burton said, the theater plans to hold more live events this year such as plays, music concerts and opera simulcasts. The theater also plans to hold special live events such as the Maine Puppet Theater Festival and performances by The Eastern Maine Pops Orchestra for Young Musicians, he said. Theater rentals, closer collaboration with other area businesses and nonprofits, an incentivized volunteer program and regular historical tours of the building also figure into the new strategic plan.

One thing there will be less of in the future is first-run movies from major studios, according to Burton. They are expensive to show and block out weeks of space at a time, he said, which limits opportunities for other types of programming. The theater will continue to show recent Hollywood releases, he said, but it also will show more classic and independent film.

“It just doesn’t work,” Burton said of heavily relying on new Hollywood releases for programming. “That’s not going to make this theater float.”

Burton stressed that, in addition to the new programming, the theater’s physical attributes should help draw people from all over eastern Maine. With 877 seats, it is the largest capacity indoor venue within a 50-mile radius and it has the largest film screen within a 100-mile radius. Built in 1932, it has an art-deco design interior with 88 balcony seats and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“People are always banging on the doors [during the day in the summer] trying to get a look at it,” Burton said. “The theater can be showcased as much as a museum.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/03/10/living/bar-harbor%e2%80%99s-criterion-theater-group-unveils-new-plan-to-make-operations-viable/ printed on December 27, 2014