Friday, August 21, 2009

Past Memroies and Future Obstacles: Theatre owner optimistic despite financial woes

GRACE MORRIS, The Red and Black

Two years ago in an interview with The Red & Black, Georgia Theatre owner Wilmot Greene said: "I hope karma is on my side. My pocketbook tells me I'm doing the wrong thing, but my brain tells me I'm doing the right thing."

The morning of June 19 seemed to scream that karma was not, in fact, on Greene's side. On that morning, the building which he had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations into since 2005, gushed smoke and flames - rather than revenue - out the windows.

"It's still unclear how much it's going to cost to rebuild," Greene said. "What is certain is that the cost will be more than the business can support. It could be as much as a million dollars. That seems like an incredibly daunting number, and frankly I am really scared."

"We will have to raise significant funds … but we sometimes sold as many as 100,000 tickets a year, so if we could just get $10 apiece from everybody that saw a show last year, we could make it happen," he said.

Although ticket purchases may have filled seats in the Theatre last year, they alone cannot provide sufficient funds to fill Greene's current financial void. Many who mourned the venue put on benefit shows soon after the fire with only the best intentions, but concertgoers didn't realize that only a fraction, if any, of that ticket revenue actually makes its way to the Theatre.

"I guess people don't really understand how rock shows work. There are costs associated with putting on shows that get paid off the top before anyone gets a dime," Greene said.

"People feel like they gave their five dollars already, when in truth sometimes we don't see a dime from benefit shows. I like having them, they are fun and I appreciate people putting them into motion. They just aren't always as financially beneficial as they may seem."

Realizing that he needed to seek additional financial aid elsewhere, Greene recently entered into an agreement with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit organization.

"They can accept funds on our behalf and then they will write checks directly to contractors or subs. This is what we have really been waiting on," he said.

"You can't just accept money from people without having a good bit of accountability and transparency; there are all kinds of legal and tax issues with that. So now we have a place to collect and store donations and a method for it all to be clean and neat."

Greene appreciates the benefit concerts that local venues and music lovers have eagerly put on, but until now he has been in a strange position watching a fundraising campaign of sorts that he never organized or asked for. He is thrilled to finally embark on a "true capital campaign" and will detail the plans for it in a press release next month.

In addition to the particulars of the campaign, Greene hopes to give the Athens community insight into why the costs of rebuilding are so high.

"The Theatre hadn't changed very much structurally since the late '30s. Since the fire gutted the interior, the rebuilding will constitute more than a 50% repair. So, by rule, the entire building will have to meet all codes," he said.

"We will have to install an elevator, all the staircases will have to be much wider, the walls themselves will have to be reinforced with huge steel beams [and] there will have to be many more bathrooms and exits."

In spite of higher costs and more stringent architectural standards, Greene has remained an optimist. He still trusts his mind over his pocketbook, and he has even thought of a way that the fire can work in his favor.

"The fact that the exterior is standing means that we could potentially have a new, modern, state-of-the-art building inside that old art deco shell. It could be really cool."

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