Pier Six move gives arts center's budget some wiggle room

October 21, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck and Eric Siegel | J. Wynn Rousuck and Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writers

The Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts ran a deficit of more than $1 million in its most recently audited statement, but hopes the city's takeover of the Pier Six Concert Pavilion will help it get back on a more solid financial footing.

The center -- a nonprofit group that primarily books theatrical shows into the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and the Lyric Opera House -- was hurt by expenses that included annual loan payments of $400,000 for the pier, Steve Goldstein, the center's general manager said yesterday.

"We had no way of solving the debt service, and so because of that we had no way of turning a profit," Mr. Goldstein said. "It is absolutely a positive step for the Mechanic."

On Wednesday, the Baltimore Board of Estimates approved a takeover of the Inner Harbor's canvas-topped Pier Six concert facility that will cost state and city tax payers $3 million. Under the terms of the takeover, the state will be responsible for $1.9 million in forfeited loan guarantees, while the city will forgive a $600,000 loan it made to the center and will pay off a $527,000 bank loan.

City officials said concerts will continue to be held at the outdoor summer concert venue. They will be presented by the city's cultural or tourism offices, or an independent promoter.

The loans being paid off and forgiven are part of a financing agreement made nearly four years ago that provided a new cover for the pavilion and increased seating capacity from 3,100 to 5,000.

The center's $1 million deficit was incurred in 1992-1993, the first full season after the renovation of the pier, Mr. Goldstein said.

"A big change occurred when the new pier was rebuilt in 1991 in that, for the first time, we had a sizable mortgage on Pier Six," he said.

In the season of the facility's renovation, the center operated in the red, incurring a debt of $145,000. The pier accounted for about one-third of the center's annual budget of approximately $11 million, according to Mr. Goldstein.

City officials say they believe they can make money staging concerts at Pier Six. "We'll end up operating it in such a way that it will be a money maker," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Wednesday.

The concert series ran a deficit of more than $100,000 in 1993, according to Mr. Goldstein.

Although the pier's audited figures are not complete for 1994, they are expected to show a profit. "We sold out a lot of shows or did 80 percent or more on a lot of shows," said Sam L'Hommedieu of the Washington-based Freestate Performing Arts Society, which booked the Pier Six concerts last summer. "We increased attendance dramatically, and I think that can be duplicated and increased next year."

An executive with WJZ-TV (Channel 13), a longtime sponsor of the Pier Six Harborlights Concert Series, said yesterday that he didn't think the takeover would hurt the pavilion's popularity.

"People come to shows first based on the strength of the entertainment, secondly for the great venue at the harbor," said Marcellus Alexander, WJZ's vice president and general manager. "If the city maintains the quality acts -- which I'm certain they would -- its success should continue."

The takeover of the pier was widely regarded yesterday as beneficial to the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts. Sandra S. Hillman, a former board member who was in on the formation of the nonprofit center, said, "I think it is absolutely positive because it reduces the [center's] realm of financial responsibility as I understand it. At first blush it seems to me to be a very helpful thing for the [center]."

While the takeover allows the center to focus on its original function -- presenting theatrical shows -- it faces other potential difficulties. Although business from touring shows has out-stripped Broadway for the past few years, "this season has tapered off a bit," according to George Wachtel, director of research for the League of American Theatres and Producers.

This season the center reduced the runs of its subscription shows at the Mechanic and Lyric by one week. The shorter runs, which have been introduced in a few other markets, were made partly in response to requests from producers, and partly in response to decreased single-ticket sales.

In addition, the Mechanic facility makes it impossible to bring in many of the new megamusicals, and the relatively small 1,600-seat capacity limits profits.

A local nonprofit group has been working on plans for a new facility in the Mount Royal cultural district, but construction could be years away.

Meanwhile, the center's 20-year lease on the Mechanic expires July 31. Negotiations for a new five-year lease are under way. Mr. Goldstein said the center will renew "if we can find a way to do it."

Clarisse Mechanic, who heads a group that owns the property, was out of town and unavailable for comment.

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