Non-profits clash with city over theater rental rates

DOWNEY - With rental rates expected to increase this year at the Downey Theatre for select non-profit arts groups, members of the arts community openly chided city officials last Wednesday for fiscally stifling local arts organizations, both old and new. During a nearly 90-minute meeting of the theatre city council subcommittee, arts supporters earnestly petitioned Councilmen Roger Brossmer and Alex Saab to reconsider adopting a flat rental rate for all theatre tenants.

"I'll speak for the Downey Symphony," said longtime Downey resident Harold Tseklenis as he stood to his feet.

"The Downey Symphony was once an extension of the parks and recreation department, which didn't have the means to provide these face the burden of rent doesn't make sense when the city is trying to support a resurgence of cultural programming," he said. "Please consider reverting the prices."

Carol Kearns of the Downey Symphony and Downey Arts Coalition also protested the new theatre rental rates, asking city officials to rescind the unnecessary financial pressure off local non-profits.

"This is just a small fraction of your budget, but it's a major part of our budget. Give a little break to the legacy groups - you want to keep these people," she said.

While current tenants pay $720 for six hours Monday through Wednesday and $900 for six hours Thursday through Sunday, the Downey Symphony and Downey Civic Light Opera have continued to pay rental rates from the 2011-12 fiscal year, saving each organization thousands of dollars.

"I don't think you should limit it for just those two groups," Kearns said. "This is not something you can nickel and dime. I'm arguing on behalf of every group who is contributing to the arts in Downey."

City officials, however, warned the Downey Symphony and Downey Civic Light Opera that a flat rate would be issued in July for all non-profit organizations and commercial businesses wishing to use the theatre.

While Brossmer reiterated his support for local arts and culture, he maintained that additional subsidies for non-profit groups only add to the $11 million deficit the city council worked to mitigate last year.

"At the end of the day, it's about dollars," said Brossmer. "There's an expense to run the theatre. We're not going to break even, but as a city council we're willing to subsidize that amount for the value art programs bring to the community."

Although the theatre continues to cost the city more than $400,000 every year, Brossmer believes VenueTech, the private theater group contracted in 2010 to manage the Downey Theatre, has increased the efficiency and utilization of the 738-seat theatre.

"We knew there would be fine-tuning along the way," said Brossmer. "This isn't a process without issues...but I'm impressed with the acts they've brought in so far."

Downey Arts Coalition member Lana Wahlquist, however, reminded Brossmer and Saab not to forget about future groups that could want to use the theatre.

"Local non-profits add value to our lives and the community," said Wahlquist. "They're not going to be able to compete with the acts VenueTech is bringing in. We've got to make sure the non-profits don't get lost in the shuffle."

Saab assured residents in attendance that the city council hopes to find a resolution that is both beneficial to local non-profits while taking into consideration the city's limited resources.

"This is value you can't quantify," he said. "I don't want you to come away with we're not sharing the same sentiment. The purpose of the theatre is not to make money. We're trying to compromise, for lack of a better word."

Both Brossmer and Saab seemed open to providing city grants to "legacy" community groups in the future on a need basis, if city economics improve.

"We agree with the vast majority of what you're saying," said Saab. "We're up here to come up with solutions. We don't have all the answers."

Recent Downey transplant Don Marshall is selfishly hopeful the city will grant local non-profits discounted theatre rates in order to ensure a future for what he called "the Downey art renaissance."

"I moved here and I didn't expect Downey to be the center of this art renaissance," said Marshall. "Nobody's suggesting things should be free, but it's reasonable to cost less to nurture and foster local arts and new organizations. When rent is too high, it strangles them in the cradle."

********** Published: May 2, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 03