Chairman offers overview of performing arts center, its governing board

VPAC Inc. was formed to facilitate the renovation of the old Dunlaps Department store into a performing arts center for all interested arts groups in Victoria.

The beginning of planning a renovation of such wide scope within the arts community involved a long and thorough survey of what interested arts groups wanted in such a facility. Dozens of arts groups participated in the survey. The building's auditorium was limited to fewer than 500 seats to avoid triggering exorbitant copyright surcharges that automatically "kick" in for venues with larger seating capacity. As to the final design: ample wing space, a flying loft, and the rear annex building were included to provide maximum flexibility of use by the largest number of potential users. With these goals and limitations under careful consideration, VPAC was able to meet 90 percent of the combined expectations of all the arts groups participating in the survey, while keeping the cost of renovations within the expected donation limits of the private sector of Victoria.

While the building was constructed with Theater Victoria as the primary tenant in mind, it was never VPAC's intention to place the facility solely within Theater Victoria's use. With that foremost in the Board's consideration of broad use by multiple arts organizations, the Victoria Cultural Council was brought in as the "umbrella" arts organization which would contract with all interested arts organizations as to individual needs and venue that each group would require. A three- tiered fee schedule was implemented which allowed for qualified 501 (c) 3 Victoria based arts groups the lowest rental fees; qualified 501(c) 3 outside Victoria arts groups were charged a slightly higher rental fee; and finally non-qualified interested parties were charged at the third tier rate. Theater Victoria and the Cultural Council each paid VPAC $1 a year in rent, in exchange, for Theater Victoria, as the facility's role as primary tenant being responsible for general operating expenses; with the Victoria Cultural Council being responsible as booking and ticketing agent for the facility as a whole. With this management plan in place, it was never VPAC's intention for the facility to be viewed as the "Theater Victoria," so as to make it clear to the public and the arts community specifically that the building was open to all.

From VPAC's organization, it took 10 years for the $3.5 million construction costs to be raised, and the building to be renovated as promised to the community and the building's donors. The operating history of the facility is therefore 10 years, while the previous 10 was spent raising funds to support the construction activity. During the construction phase, Leo Welder, one of the Board's founding members, passed away, and in his memory for all of his contributions to Victoria's community, the facility was dedicated to his memory and example as "The Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts."

For several years after the Welder Center opened to the public, the administrative plan worked with few difficulties. Operating losses at the VPAC level were minimal, and use of the WC within the arts community was both encouraging and growing. However, what the WC lacked was a dedicated program to market the facility outside of Victoria. Efforts to achieve this level of marketing were difficult to accomplish within the confines of the Cultural Council's budget and charter, while VPAC's own budget was unable to pay for a dedicated marketing staff position. Simultaneously the relationship between Theater Victoria and Cultural Council became strained, making basic bookings even more difficult. Eventually the Cultural Council clashed with both VPAC and Theater Victoria over the booking procedures which governed the WC.

At this point Theater Victoria presented to the VPAC Board a plan to supplant the Cultural Council as the booking, ticketing, and marketing entity, while introducing the utilization of a portion of HOT funding to pay for the marketing efforts included in their plan. The VPAC Board agreed to the change, having in our judgment few alternatives given the time frame involved, upon the condition that VPAC make the HOT funding submission before City Council, and that those funds be dispersed according to City regulations and State law. The funding was approved by council, and administrated by VPAC, never taking it for granted that this was the people's money, subject to taxpayer oversight. All invoices were accordingly vetted by VPAC staff.

VPAC's Board review of the results of the marketing effort led the Board to the decision not to participate in a similar effort the following year, leaving Theater Victoria to proceed on their own accord, should they decide to do so. With the results of these past few years in mind, the marketing of the WC has been a disappointment to the VPAC Board. With an asset such as the WC in hand, other options, if they were to present themselves, had to be considered. For several months Victoria College had signaled to members of the VPAC Board its interest in the WC, emphasizing their desire to market the facility as VPAC had originally intended in its formative charter, while respecting all donor naming rights. Last week the VPAC Board approved a 90 day period during which VC and VPAC will try and negotiate a sale of the WC, subject to the extinguishment of any outstanding debt.

Parenthetically, the sale, should it go through, should prove to be a boon to Theater Victoria, relieving them of the burden of paying the normal operating costs of the WC, while allowing them to focus on what they do best - presenting great live theater to Victorians. The WC will be full of new challenges and offerings ahead for our City, including Film Exhibitions, Museum displays, and VC sponsored arts programs. Additional use of the WC will result in increased foot traffic benefiting downtown business, which in turn will increase tax receipts for the City of Victoria.

For those who choose to believe that the proposed transaction is simply a way to get the WC off of The O'Connor & Hewitt Foundation's books - all that I can say is that The Foundation has always kept the long-term view of Victoria's future in mind. We are proud to have participated in the building of the WC, and look forward to continuing to enhance the facility's steadfast commitment to the future and strength of Victoria's Arts Community.

Robert Hewitt Jr. is the chairman of the Victoria Performing Arts Center. See VPAC's resolution below.