Town residents should be polled on a range of options for future operations of the New Canaan Playhouse, where details such as costs to maintain or more substantially repair the aging structure are spelled out in detail, officials say.
During their first meeting, members of the New Canaan Playhouse Committee on Tuesday said the town may opt to keep up the 1923-built structure as-is, mending it as needed, raising rent, cutting costs and operating at a loss, or else going to market to find a private owner interested in getting into the movie business, or even partnering with a newly created nonprofit organization that may run it as a more diversified entertainment venue.
It’s important to find out just what those options would mean for New Canaan property owners, committee member Neil Budnick said during the meeting, held at Town Hall.
“Our job is always to minimize debt and taxpayer cost,” he said.
The best way to accomplish that may be through what committee members called a “white knight” scenario, whereby a generous supporter simply offers to give money to support the Playhouse.
The 5-member committee elected Steve Karl as chairman. Its members include Budnick, Beth Jones, John Engel and Joe Paladino.
While town leaders have said New Canaan is not in danger of losing the building, the committee will consider funding mechanisms to raise funds needed to bring the 1923-built structure up to code, as well as additional uses for the space.
Its official charge is to explore “the public and private options leading to the funding of Capital improvements as noted in the 2015/16 budget review and the invigoration of the entertainment offerings of the Playhouse.”
“The Committee shall call upon the expertise and opinions of residents and others to aid in this task,” according to its page on the town website.
Faced with the prospect of its former owner selling off the cupola-topped building at 93 Elm St.—and with help from members of New Canaan’s Franco family, who stepped in to ease the transition, Jones noted—the town acquired the Playhouse for $2,205,000 in August 2007.
At that time, residents had shown a great outpouring of sentiment for the building, Karl said.
Speaking to its firmly fixed physical presence on Elm Street, he added: “To me, the theater there is almost equivalent to the Congregational Church on the hill at God’s Acre.”
There’s a “tremendous value” to the way the Playhouse helps “sell our town,” Karl said.
“Even if you put in a $50,000 [annual] loss, how much does it [the Playhouse] generate just from people who drive down the street and say, ‘Look at this.’ We forget and take it for granted how neat it is when they see it for the first time.”
That said, the capital needs at the Playhouse are comprehensive. Public works officials said during a budget hearing in February that the structure needs parts of its roof and brick exterior replaced ($550,00), an elevator and ADA-compliant wheelchair access ($1,120,000), new gutters and drainage system ($200,000) and, perhaps most of all, a new layout for its sprinkler system—currently perched above a layer of insulation in the ceiling.
“There is a fine line between charming and outdated,” Paladino said.
Even with the capital needs, and though its screens are smaller than those at some cinemas in neighboring towns, the theater itself is cozy and comfortable, committee members said.
Engel said the “movie experience” in New Canaan is not substantially different from Wilton or Darien.
The committee agreed to meet twice per month, given the work ahead of it (next meeting is Oct. 27). That work should yield a report at some point that includes notes on when the leases for the town-owned Playhouse’s current tenants (such as Bow Tie Cinemas, the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce and Earth Garden) are ending, and how the timing of those contracts tie into a possible timeline for construction, Karl said.
The Playhouse takes in some $200,000 per year in rent for the town, and Bow Tie makes a profit given what the town charges (some $110,000 annually), Budnick said.
He added that the committee should investigate the claim that the theater brings nonresidents to New Canaan restaurants for dinner, since the food scene here could well be self-sustaining.
Committee members agreed to bring in stakeholders and expert voices from the town to weigh in as it studies the future operations of the theater, including the Franco family and Jerry Miller, who helped found the successful Ridgefield Playhouse and spoke on a League of Women Voters-organized panel on the New Canaan Playhouse in April.
Karl noted that it may be “difficult to imagine” that New Canaan has the interest and volunteer base needed to operate an active, varied live and recorded entertainment venue such as Ridgefield.