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Stability through Innovation: Securing the Wealthy Theatre’s Next 100 Years

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Original article in LHAT's "inLeague" (PDF)

Kindly click here to see the original article as it appears in the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) publication, "inLeague"

/Ray Casbaugh

Stability through Innovation: Securing the Wealthy Theatre’s Next 100 Years
By Erin Wilson, Theatre Director

Wealthy Theatre, in Grand Rapids, MI, designed by prolific architect Pierre Lindhout (1891-1940), turns 100 in 2011. Operated by Grand Rapids Community Media Center (CMC), Wealthy Theatre is marking its centennial anniversary with a modest capital campaign (click here to visit the campaign's micro-site) to fund an ambitious series of upgrades, as a springboard into the theatre’s second century.  Our Centennial Campaign is about much more than a building turning 100 years old. This pioneering campaign is about historic preservation, embracing the future to preserve the past.

Wealthy Theatre’s Centennial Campaign (click here to see the entire proposal) comprises 30 separate but related projects to reduce theatre expenses while continuing the theatre’s pioneering technological capabilities. Our Centennial Campaign projects address two fundamental challenges of any historic venue: containing costs and boosting appeal.

Urban Core Theatres: Neighborhood Anchors

Wealthy Theatre is a proud member of the League of Historic American Theatres. Our very existence reinforces community identity, heritage and tradition -- promoting pride of place and anchoring creative communities. Wealthy Theatre is a benefit to current and future generations, and a pivotal neighborhood resource -- socially, economically, historically and culturally.

Since agreeing to take over the bankrupt venue in 2005, CMC infused a philosophy of adaptiveness at Wealthy Theatre -- seeking to achieve stability through innovation -- and has experienced more than five years of continuously increased usage. CMC enacted visionary yet cost-effective technology upgrades throughout 2007 and 2008. New users took interest, bringing new audiences. A sense of stability has led to long-term trust -- belief that doors would remain open, lights would stay on, and all would be welcome. Generating more patronage each year, Wealthy Theatre has stimulated much needed redevelopment along the Wealthy Street corridor.  

The Wealthy Theatre Historic District continues its rebirth, following the renovation of the theatre in the 1990s after two decades of being closed down. LHAT was there when a grassroots neighborhood organization initiated the theatre’s renovation. Wealthy Theatre has since provided the catalyst for the renaissance of a neighborhood. Investment and foot traffic are up, crime is down. We’ve adapted to new and emerging techniques and programming, with an emphasis on accessibility. Our Centennial Campaign is both an evolution and an affirmation of these practices, advancing Wealthy Theatre on all fronts.

The Threat to Historic Venues

MSNBC recently declared old theatres among “the most endangered historic places in America.” Michigan filmmaker Michael Moore, Special Advisor to the Wealthy Theatre Centennial Campaign, has championed the cause to save these institutions.

The challenge to preservation and success is two-fold: lowering costs while expanding services. Historic theatres shut down when they cannot close the gap between loss and profit. Wealthy Theatre’s Centennial Campaign addresses both of these concerns by incorporating new technologies to smartly reach a sustainable usage threshold.

Innovation: CMC Leads the Way

Wealthy Theatre’s 30-point Centennial Campaign applies technology upgrades and greening methods as means of historic preservation. Technology upgrades include replacing our four standard-definition video cameras with Blu-ray compatible units. Greening methods include containment (i.e., additional doors) and solar for heat and electric.

The key to sustainability is the carefully selected application of greening strategies, combined with operational technologies that allow the venue to provide exciting and attractive, yet cost effective services. While centered around Wealthy Theatre specifically, this campaign is really about the future of historic theatres across the country. CMC has chosen to use Wealthy Theatre’s centennial anniversary to embrace the future, and perhaps to serve as a model for survival of other national treasures. We celebrate our centennial by focusing on the next 100 years and believe preservation is about responsible, innovative usage -- and lots of it.

Our Centennial Campaign and celebration begin January 1, 2011. We’ve consulted with experts over the past three years to design comprehensive and complementary, yet feasible upgrades that allow us to look forward with confidence and optimism. To accomplish our goals and overcome our challenges, we will cut overhead through greening initiatives, refresh technologies to maintain a competitive advantage, and broaden community accessibility.

The Ghost in the Machine: Increased Cost of Energy

While Wealthy Theatre sought stability through greater usage, an unexpected variable emerged. Utility companies, in the age of deregulation, steadily increased rates for electricity and heat. Historic theatres are essentially cavernous buildings that consume a lot of energy. Increased community usage naturally increases overall energy use, with the new variable of annually increasing utility rates. As fossil fuels become scarcer, this dynamic threatens to continue and worsen, emerging as a peril for historic theatres nationwide.

The first reflex of a numbers cruncher is obvious: raise usage fees. But higher fees would cut out a core group of users, including local artists and smaller community organizations. The CMC mission is “building community,” so our commitment to diversity compelled us to dig deeper, leading us to discover the potential for reduced expenses through greening initiatives.

The set of proposals we’ve created is a tapestry: each relies on another. For instance, to heat the Peter Wege Auditorium effectively with solar panels, we needed heat containment at the foyer, bulkhead and loading dock. Without containment, waste would eliminate any benefit. Save what we have; replace unsustainable ways with new ones.

Similarly, we’ll replace outdated multimedia technologies with new ones in a way that respects the historic traditions of this city landmark. These upgrades are as vital as greening initiatives, because it’s less meaningful to discuss “reducing overhead costs” without continuing and expanding usage.

The Wealthy Theatre Centennial Campaign will address fundamental challenges with an open, transparent process that aspires to demonstrate best practices in historic preservation. Regular updates to follow!

Disclosure: This article originally appeared in the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) publication, "inLeague." Wealthy Theatre is a longstanding member of LHAT and Director Erin Wilson is the organization's state representative.

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That's such a huge milestone for ANY establishment, especially a historic theatre. I wish 100 more years of prosperity to this building.

Happy Birthday, WT!