Major Changes at Auditorium

The Door Community Auditorium (DCA) Board of Directors cut all five staff positions at the end of October as part of an ongoing reorganization effort spurred by the economic downturn, increased competition, and disappointing attendance.

The DCA let all five of its staff members go, then rehired Executive Director Dick Sandretti on a 90-day contract as acting executive director to continue day-to-day operations. Sandretti was allowed to hire two staff members for the same duration to continue programming.

DCA Board President Kaaren Northrop said it was not an easy decision to make and credited the staff for their dedication to the organization. But, she said the auditorium has trimmed all the other costs it could, and staffing was the only area still untouched.

The Door Community Auditorium board cut five staffers this month, the first step in restructuring that it hopes will turn around the venue.

“I don’t think anyone on the board has slept well for weeks, but in the end, it’s going to be better,” she said. “We used to do 30 – 40 shows in a year, and that’s when we grew to five full-time staff. In the last three years, we’ve done less than 15 main stage shows, but we still have the same amount of staff.”

“We couldn’t sustain it anymore,” Northrop said. “In the end it’s a business, and you have to be responsible to your donors who keep you afloat. If people feel like you’re not using their donations wisely they won’t support you. I was not going to go back and ask for more money without feeling like we’ve done everything possible to be worthy of their donations.”

Over the next 90 days, the auditorium board will re-evaluate its management structure, consolidating the work of five staff members into three. The board will hire an executive director first, who will be charged with hiring a technical director and office manager. Northrop said the recently released staff will be encouraged to apply for the newly defined positions.

Terry Meyer-Matier, who served as the auditorium’s executive director through much of the 1990s, agreed in May to work on a contract basis to schedule main stage programming for 2010. She has been the programming director for Big Top Chatauqua in Washburn, WI since leaving the auditorium in 2000 and was recently named that organization’s executive director.

The upheaval at the auditorium can be traced to many factors. Attendance has been disappointing for many events, and several community business owners expressed concerns about the timing and prices of some performances. But the problems the organization faces are more complicated than the events themselves.

When the auditorium was built in 1991 with $2.7 million in donated funds, it was essentially the only game in town. A referendum to build a 410-seat auditorium with tax dollars had failed, but community leaders took it upon themselves to raise the dollars to build an even larger facility. Former Gibraltar Superintendent Bob Dahlstrom said the school’s administration and staff were very supportive of it.

“There wasn’t anything else like it,” he remembered from his home in Rockville, MD. “Some people with foresight had the vision, that there was something it could provide for the community and the school.”

In its first decade, it largely fulfilled that vision as “the hub of the arts and cultural community” and a venue to “bring us all closer together.” Early acts included Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Victor Borge, and the Kingston Trio, and the Gibraltar School community reveled in having a sparkling venue for graduations, plays, and concerts.

But in the late 1990s, several venues opened that spread both audiences and donor dollars thin.

The Third Avenue Playhouse, the Southern Door High School Auditorium, and the Trueblood Performing Arts Center all opened their doors. American Folklore Theatre surged in popularity and added fall shows, and Peninsula Players and Birch Creek recently expanded facilities through large-scale capital campaign drives. Three years ago, the outdoor Peg Egan Performing Arts Center opened in Egg Harbor, offering for free some of the same acts the DCA once offered exclusively.

“Even five years ago there wasn’t the same amount of competition,” Northrop said. She admitted that the auditorium has been slow to adjust to a new, more competitive market. “It totally changes what we need to do. We have to offer what nobody else can.”

Northrop said that means going after some bigger, national acts in the summer that can only work on the auditorium stage and scale. In the winter, the goal is to do more local and regional events and get the local community back in the building when there’s less competition.

There’s another, more complicated piece to the puzzle as well. The auditorium board leases the facility from the Gibraltar School District, which gets first dibs on the facility. When the school uses it – for workshops, presentations, graduation, and concerts – the auditorium gets credited back on its lease. When the auditorium was first built, with the support of many on the school board and administration, the school used it about 150 days a year.

At the end of the 1990s, the school grappled with declining enrollment that strapped its budget. It began cutting back its use of the auditorium. Today, the school uses it between 95 and 105 days a year, which Northrop said amounts to $25,000 – $35,000 less revenue for DCA.

“A lot of it was financial,” Northrop said of the shift. “The school had budget issues and it made sense for them to use it less. But we also need to have more collaboration with the school again.”

The old auditorium structure, created when Door County was desperate for a performing arts venue, no longer applies. The market has changed, and the community has as well. Northrop and the DCA board hope it’s not too late to re-invent the organization.

“We honestly feel like this is a re-birth,” she said. “It’s a chance to start bare-bones and rebuild and become an even stronger organization.”