EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 23, 2013

City mulls cut to hall fees

Group says it can't afford $5,500 cost

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — The show will go on — probably.

Mayor James Fiorentini said he’s “cautiously optimistic” the city can find a way to reduce the roughly $5,500 it is expected to cost a local theater company to use City Hall’s Nicholas J. Ross Auditorium this fall.

Spotlight Playhouse, a Haverhill-based nonprofit community theater company that rehearses and performs exclusively in the city, wants to rent the auditorium for its October production of “Lend Me a Tenor.”

But the troupe cannot afford the estimated $5,500 in city fees and other charges for five shows that would take place on two consecutive weekends.

The fees include $1,280 to rent the auditorium, $2,325 for a custodian, and at least $1,845 for separate police and firefighter details, according to a breakdown of the cost provided by Scott Helmers, president of the theater company.

The theater company has asked the mayor and City Council to waive or reduce the fees. Councilors were receptive to the request when it came before them for the first time two weeks ago, and they are scheduled to consider the matter again tonight at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

Fiorentini said he and police Chief Alan DeNaro met with Helmers last week and that they are trying to figure out ways to make the venue less expensive. The mayor said some of the fees can be reduced, but not all of them.

For instance, he said the council can waive the $20 per hour general rental fee by a total of $250, but not more than that. Also, the police chief can waive the requirement that a police officer and a firefighter be present whenever the auditorium is being used by a private group for a public event, the mayor said.

“We are confident we can give them some relief and find a way to make it happen,” the mayor said of the troupe’s desire to use the auditorium for five shows in October. “But we are probably going to need at least another week to work out the details.”

Helmers said the troupe is also looking for police officers and firefighters who might be willing to volunteer their time to work a detail without pay.

“The mayor and chief made specific offers to help that we will pursue,” Helmers said yesterday.

In response to the matter, councilors have expressed frustration that recent efforts to make the City Hall auditorium easier and less expensive for local schools and private theatrical groups have been ineffective.

“This is lesson that all these fees and regulations are making it so that nobody can rent the auditorium because we have made it unaffordable,” Councilor William Ryan said at the council’s July 9 meeting.

Helmers said the theater company also has about $2,400 in operating costs related to its next production.

“We only generate revenue when we perform, which happens three or four times per year,” he said. “Consequently, the proceeds from each show need to cover the cost of that show, pay our rent and expenses until the next show, and allow us to pre-pay the royalties for the next show. Because ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ takes place in early October, we need to raise enough operating capital to keep the lights on until we generate revenue from our December show.”

The troupe projects $6,000 in ticket sales and another $1,200 in advertisement and sponsorship revenue for its October show, leaving a gap of about $6,200 based on the city’s $5,500 estimate for renting the auditorium, Helmers said.

The theater company, which formed in 2007 and has performed at various Haverhill churches and at the high school, needs the City Hall auditorium because the churches it has used don’t have stages that are large enough to accommodate the October production and the high school is unavailable at that time. The set for “Lend Me A Tenor” consists of two adjoining hotel rooms with multiple doors that actors and actresses are constantly using, Helmers said.

Helmers said the high school auditorium is the preferable venue, but that school officials told him it would be too much of a disruption to have the stage set up for the play over two weekends during the school year.

Helmers said the tentative schedule is for five shows over the first and second weekend in October. He said he needs a decision from the city on reducing the fees by mid-August.

“We are proud of out organization’s Haverhill roots and expect to remain an active part of Haverhill’s creative economy,” Helmers said in a letter to the council. He noted the group has paid more than $30,000 to rent a building on Essex Street for auditions since 2007 and estimated its productions have generated about $75,000 in ticket, meal and other sales in the city.