The Holly project: Would it fly, or crash?
When Jefferson Public Radio made an offer on the old Holly Theatre, which sits five blocks from the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford, the shock waves began downtown and bounced around the region.
JPR wants to turn the Holly into a performing arts center, an idea the GRT opposes on grounds that it would compete with GRT for both donors and entertainment dollars.
The $5.2 million GRT is not only a venue for traveling Broadway and other shows and a home to local arts groups, it is the linchpin of downtown redevelopment.
JPR is buying the Holly for $499,000 — 25 years after its first offer, made when the old movie theater closed — in a deal JPR's Ron Kramer expects to close in mid-April. He envisions a $3 million to $4 million renovation taking maybe five years, and a home for popular concerts.
After Kramer met with officials from the Craterian and the city in October, Mayor Gary Wheeler called the project "a good boost for that end of town" and "very positive."
The Craterian's Stephen McCandless declined to be interviewed for this column, saying he felt his point of view had been fully explained in other stories. But on the Craterian's website, Craterian.org, he describes the plan as "a multimillion-dollar gamble."
The Craterian argues that the Holly "would duplicate offerings and services, and exhaust available resources."
Former Jackson County Expo Executive Director Chris Borovansky, who booked acts here and is now CEO of the Stanislaus County Fair in California, hit a similar note last week, asking whether JPR had evidence for its claim that a second center would be "additive and not competitive" to the GRT.
There is a study, and Kramer is pointing to it. The Medford Retail Analysis and Business Marketing Plan was conducted by Marketek, Inc., of Portland, which specializes in analysis for economic development and downtown revitalizations. It was submitted to the city and the Medford Urban Renewal Agency in April. Here are some highlights:
- Recommended downtown additions include a movie theatre, a concert/live music hall, live theatre and dinner theatre.
- "Supportable demand" for more downtown entertainment venue space is more than double the existing space.
- About 53 percent of respondents say the downtown needs more live music and concerts.
- About 57 percent say downtown needs more restaurants and a movie theatre.
- Preservation of Medford's historic buildings came in second only to easy parking as what people want most.
Kramer says recent shows at JPR's Cascade Theatre in downtown Redding, Calif., are also instructive. The Cascade is a vintage movie palace JPR bought in 1999 and opened as a performing arts center in 2004 after a $5.8 million renovation (GRT supporters point out that Redding has nothing like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or the Britt Festivals to compete for entertainment dollars).
"Unquestionably, there are artists you can't present at an accessible price in a smaller room," Kramer says.
The Cascade did two shows with Bill Cosby with $75 tickets, which sold out. The Craterian, with nearly 300 fewer seats than Kramer plans for the Holly, would have to charge more than $100 a seat for such a show, Kramer says. A recent Cascade show by singer Bonnie Raitt was similar.
The result of this and other differences, including programming, Kramer says, is that the Holly "would not be the Craterian times two." He says in two-venue communities there is "a natural gravitation and a need to differentiate the two" that sorts itself out into a different audience and different acts.
He says JPR has unique efficiencies in marketing, accounting, technical and other areas that would enable it to run the Holly for less than anybody else. The Cascade, with three full-time employees, had about $915,000 in 2009 ticket sales. The GRT, with seven full-time employees, had $531,000 in 2009 ticket sales.
"Having taught ourselves what we needed to learn, we could turn the Holly into a productive asset to the community, do ourselves some good and operate it more efficiently than any other party," Kramer says.
JPR plans to seek money from public and private sources. The JPR Foundation bought the old Cascade with the help of the University of Oregon, which sold tax-exempt bonds to finance the deal and then signed a lease giving JPR the right to restore the building and requiring JPR's Foundation to pay the cost of servicing the bonds.
The radio side of the JPR organization sells accounting and other services to the theater side, and the Cascade buys time on JPR's California stations. The entities coproduce events, sharing profits or losses. Bottom line, the theater has been chipping in about $100,000 a year to public radio.
"This is what would happen with the Holly," Kramer says. "We've learned how."
He admits he doesn't yet know how to factor in the recent gift of a Medford building to JPR for its studios and headquarters.
"It means twice as much money to raise," he says. "But it could also mean a higher profile and more interest."
Medford City Councilman John Michaels suggests the Holly could present vintage films and festivals a la San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre, which sounds a lot like something Kramer is talking about. Britt's Jim Fredericks has called for Valley arts groups to join forces in marketing and maybe coproduce some events. Another idea that's been floated is for JPR to pledge not to pursue the Craterian's major sponsors.
Having two performing arts centers in town is a big, beautiful idea. If it works. You can't help share the worries of those who are protective of the GRT. But I wouldn't bet against JPR's expertise.
If not JPR, who? If not now, when? Nothing works until somebody does it. Are there alternatives? One would be to see the Holly torn down, something nobody wants.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to email@example.com.