Possible rent increase threatens Slocum House Theater Company

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

Updated: December 19, 2011, 7:54 PM

 

A plan to dramatically increase rent for the Slocum House Theatre Company could mark an end to the group’s 46 years at Esther Short Park, according to an email sent by the company’s board of directors.

The city, which owns the theater, plans to raise monthly use fees for the site from about $635 a month to $2,500 a month starting in January, said Rosina Busse, a board member at the nonprofit theater company.

“We know that the city is not able to afford floating us, and we’ve discussed getting there gradually,” Busse said. “We’re looking at what we can do to prevent the immediate rent increase. If it did happen, we would try to negotiate the best we can to at least finish up our current productions.”

Jan Bader, the city of Vancouver’s program and policy development manager, said the city sent its proposed rate increase for the theater’s use of the building to Rebecca Kramer, a board member, on Dec. 5 in hopes of coming up with a solution.

“Our intention has been to continue to go month to month until we can work this out,” Bader said. “Our intention is to continue to work things out with them.”

Bader said that Kramer didn’t talk to her before sending an email about the rate increase to the public.

“It was a surprise to me because I thought we were in negotiations here,” Bader said.

The city pays for utilities, insurance and maintenance at the site, she added.

“I’ve been meeting with Rebecca about this since June,” Bader said. “The city is paying about $2,500 a month to keep them in the building.”

Technically, the payments made by the company aren’t rent, but are “use fees,” Bader said.

City Councilor Jack Burkman explained them in a response on his Facebook page.

“The theater has been charged part of the building operational expenses for a long time: $635/month,” Burkman wrote. “The proposed new contract still doesn’t charge rent. It proposes having the city stop subsidizing the theater and have the theater pay their operational expenses. Those expenses run about $2500/month for maintenance, utilities, operating supplies and capital repairs necessary to maintain a historic structure that is being used.”

The theater board was given a draft proposal with financial details about the increase last week. If the costs rise in January, it will be hard for the theater company to continue at the site, Busse said.

“It’s sort of a grim option to have to face,” Busse said. “We love performing there. I love bringing in new shows.”

The theater company and the city plan to meet to discuss the issue at 11 a.m. Thursday, said Alicia Marie Turvin, a theater board member.

The company is discussing fundraising and possible sponsorships, but with the rent hike rapidly approaching, there’s not much time to get those efforts going, Busse said.

“We’ve been getting a lot of feedback,” Busse said. “We absolutely are willing to explore every option we have.”

It would be hard for the 50-seat theater to raise ticket prices, which range from $11 to $13 per performance, and there’s no way to increase the number of seats, she said.

“We were told they wanted to change the rent to market rate — and if we couldn’t afford it, there are other clients waiting,” Busse said.

But there are no businesses actively pursuing the use agreement for the site at this time, Bader said.

“I don’t have anybody interested in that site,” she said.

Full market rent for the building would be $5,000 a month, according to Burkman.

With higher ticket prices unlikely to bridge the nonprofit’s funding gap, another option to raise money could be for the theater company to move some items it stores in the upper part of the building so the space could be rented out as offices, Bader said.

“Their original use agreement called for them to have the basement and the ground floor,” she said. “But they’ve moved to storing things upstairs.”

The city has cut 20 percent of its staff in the past year and announced a 10 percent cut in the Parks and Recreation department, and that will likely lead to layoffs, according to Burkman.

“We can’t justify paying the operational bills for any organization while taking these actions,” Burkman’s Facebook response said.

The city council voted for a 3.5 percent raise for city manager Eric Holmes, but most of the staff has gone without raises for the past four years, Bader said.

“Funds are tight,” Bader said. “We real­ly need to focus on core services like police, fire, water and sewer.”

Here's the theater company's email:

Slocum House Theatre

December 17, 2011

Greetings!

We need your help.

It is with a heavy heart that the Board of Directors informs you of the City of Vancouver's plan for our beloved theatre company. As you probably know, the city owns the Slocum House, and they have just recently presented us with a new rental contract that would increase our rent by 400% over what we are currently paying effective January, 2012. Imagine if your rent or mortgage was suddenly increased by that much! This would certainly evict our modest community theatre out of our house.

The Slocum House has been providing live theatre for community entertainment for over 46 years! Slocum House Theatre has been a part of the downtown area since before it was nice to go downtown. The Slocum House was to be torn down for urban renewal in the 1960's. Robert Hidden did not want to see this happen. He tried desperately to find someone who could save the house. Hermine Decker, the theatre teacher at Clark College, asked if it could be a community theatre. The only theatre at that time was at the college. They decided it could be a theatre with lots of work and time and volunteers. The city gave us the southwest corner of Esther Short park. Esther Short gave the City of Vancouver the land for the park stating it was to only be used for a public meeting space, the Heart of a community. What other space would be better to have our first all volunteer community theatre. The house was moved by volunteers in 1965. The first show was in 1972. It took 4 years to make the house into a theatre. The house was in bad shape. All the work was done by volunteers in our community. To this day Slocum House Theatre has never had any employees. . We have kept this community theatre going over 46 years. And when we say "we", we mean all of you, our community, who has supported our theatre through your acting, your backstage work, your volunteering, and your patronage.

We plea to you now to write or call Vancouver city council members and let them know how important the Slocum House Theatre is to you. Send the word to them that art in our community is more important than greed. The city states that they have already been approached by a business that can afford their "market rates." This breaks our hearts... the thought of losing our chance of performing for your enjoyment, so that our lovely building can be used in this way.

Thanks for your continued support.

With warm regards,

Board of Directors

Slocum House Theatre

Here's a response email sent to the city council about the issue from City Manager Eric J. Holmes:

Mayor & Council –

It has come to my attention that some of all members of council may have been contacted by the Slocum House Theater Company about their discussions with my staff regarding the renewal of the use agreement for the Slocum House. As we have over recent years, the City continues to seek ways to refine our operations with an focused eye toward core services. This effort includes reviewing our relationships with other organizations in the community. This approach is consistent with how the City has worked in other comparable situations, such as with the Pearson Air Museum, as well as with other important service providers, such as Share House, Council for the Homeless and Community Mediation Services, all of which have been weaned off general fund support over recent months or years.

In that vein, we have been in conversation with the Theater Company since late spring regarding their use of the house. The Theater Company’s use agreement expires at the end of December, 2011. Earlier this year, the City initiated a conversations with the Theater Company about a new use agreement which would provide for the city to achieve cost recovery for their use of the building. Jan Bader met with representatives from the Theater company on June 23 and September 2 to discuss potential changes in their use agreement.

The Theater company currently has exclusive use of the 5,000 square foot building. There is no general public access to the building beyond Theater productions. Currently, the City estimates its costs of operations (maintenance, utilities, operating supplies and capital repairs necessary to maintain a historic structure) based on the last several years are approximately $25,000 annually. The current use agreement provides for the Theater Company to pay the City about $635 per month for use of the house ($7,580 per year). In addition, the Farmers Market occupies one small office for about $250 per month ($3,000 per year), under a separate agreement. Market rent for the structure is estimated at about $5,000 per month.

Though the Slocum House may garner market rent for commercial purposes, I and my staff have been operating under the premise that our first responsibility is to work with the Theater Company to establish a relationship that balances the City's need achieve cost recovery with the community interest of supporting the Theater. The city forwarded a draft of a formal proposal to the Theater company two weeks ago as part of that effort. As Council can see from the e-mail exchange attached below, the proposal was intended as the next step in the negotiations. Late last week and without discussion, the Theater Board unanimously rejected the draft. We continue our effort at a staff level to engage with the Theater company to explore ingredients in a successful outcome, I have called Rebecca Kramer, representative from the Theater Company, to assure her of my commitment to exploring potential solutions.

In addition to the proposed use agreement, I have asked my staff to explore other options, such as reducing the space footprint they are using, engaging other partners, or finding other locations that may be more cost effective, functional or both. Therefore, over this upcoming year, we intend to explore locations in the community where they could perhaps partner with another organization (church, other theater group, etc.) and utilize space that does not require a subsidy from the City.

As with all of our relationships, I and my staff remain committed to seeking a balance that reflects the realities of today’s economic times with the need to foster an environment that cultivates community based solutions. I look forward to continuing discussion with the Slocum House theater to this end.

Thank you, and please feel free to let me know any questions or concerns -

Eric J. Holmes | City Manager