July 2024
‘Perfect Storm’
Rocky Times, Big Changes at Suze’s PCA

Following the pandemic shutdown, a surprise cash infusion leading to a new facility, inflation and cost overruns, leadership changes, difficult decisions and some bad breaks, Suze’s Prescott Center for the Arts is urgently asking for help to rebuild the finances and operations of the city’s venerable community theatre.

After eight and a half years of dedicated service, longtime Executive Director Robyn Allen has retired. Leaving is “the hardest decision I ever had to make,” Allen says, with tears in her eyes.

Challenging times

It has been a difficult time for arts facilities across the country, and Suze’s Prescott Center for the Arts is no exception, as 5enses readers know. Allen explains, “The world turned upside down in 2020 for operations for us.” Shows had to be canceled to protect the health of patrons, actors and crews. There were no ticket sales, and volunteer efforts shifted to the PCA Serves program, doing community outreach and support.

A generous donation changed the name of the organization to Suze’s Prescott Center for the Arts and offered hope for following through on a long-held dream to build a second stage. But nearly as soon as construction began in July ‘21 it became clear that the money, legally earmarked for the capital campaign rather than operations, wouldn’t go as far as anyone hoped.

“It was a whole different world during the pandemic, with inflation, and every single thing that could go wrong with that budget went wrong.” Subcontractors faced steeply rising and volatile costs. Reliable donors refocused on what they saw as more immediate concerns, including political campaigns. Grant funding and government small-business loans that were available in 2019 dried up suddenly. An assessment error at the Denver offices of Pinnacle Bank led to a construction loan that could cover only the primary contract, not the extensive subcontract work.

“(We thought) well, this is going to cost a lot more than what was planned when the capital campaign was brought into fruition in 2018.” The options were to stop construction and “sit around with an empty shell” or proceed anyway. The contractor warned of multiplying costs: “They said, if you don't keep moving forward, you're going to look at even two or three million more. Suddenly raising two million turns into raising four or five more. It was just the perfect storm for PCA.”

The theatre reached out to multiple banks for loans to bridge the gap, but amid worldwide fiscal uncertainty the industry was focused on reducing its own risk, and none would lend. Pinnacle Bank wouldn’t budge either.

With conventional fundraising strategies stymied and a balloon payment coming due, Pinnacle offered a stark choice: foreclosure or sale of the property. The bank found a local unidentified buyer, who formed a new Wyoming corporation, Marina Street LLC, to hold the land and buildings. Pinnacle required the same payment terms from Marina Street, including balloon payments. The terms of the agreement allow SPCA to repurchase the property for approximately $2.5 million over time. The organization’s monthly leaseback payment is $18,000, up from $15,000 for the first period.

This left the theatre in the uncomfortable position of having to reach out to donors again for help to fund operations, on top of cutbacks, staff layoffs and salary freezes. Allen voluntarily stopped taking her salary. These measures allowed the theatre to complete its scheduled season, which closed in May with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

The new Studio Theatre has been an integral part of the last two seasons. Two venues on campus allow for additional productions and some additional ticket revenue, but have also stretched the staff and volunteers thin. Fundraising continues, and although the community has shown great support, the results so far haven’t been enough.

Leadership change

In April this year Allen found herself torn between the crisis at the theatre and multiple health crises in her family. “I had to weigh heavily, leaving my PCA family and leaning into my family that needed me. … Time was not on my side,” making the organization’s established procedure for recruiting and hiring a replacement problematic. It turned to a relatively new face, Jenn Flaa.

“At about that time, Jenn just kept showing up. She was there in January, saying, ‘How can I help? What can I do? I’ll teach classes for free.’ I didn't know a lot of people who were saying that.”

Flaa brings enthusiasm: “I just usually show up and pitch in wherever and when. I’d already pitched doing four classes, and we’d talk about the next season and what kind of things would you do? Then when she said she had all these family issues and was thinking about retiring, and she’s like, ‘What do you think?’ I’m like, I love this place, so okay.”

Board Vice President Bear Hegrenes made the motion to appoint Flaa on an emergency basis. Hegrenes and Flaa have been life partners since 2011, and Hegrenes recused from the vote as the board approved the motion. Board President Dana Murdock emphasizes that Hegrenes does not vote on board decisions that directly affect Flaa. But the relationship impinges on at least the spirit of the organization’s bylaws, and the appointment has raised concerns among SPCA’s community of supporters and donors.

Relatively new to the board, Murdock was named president in September, and quickly set about making changes, particularly insisting that board members be heavily involved in fundraising. The perfect storm extended to the boardroom, says Allen: “With the regular summer transition we had six member terms expire, some prospects were concerned about social distancing in meetings, and others about fundraising. Says Murdock, “We had three old board members return on a temporary basis while we recruited new members. We have a very strong board now.” Allen adds, “People came running” to the organization’s distress call.

While new to the theatre, Murdock is not naive about its “untenable” situation. She says she has full confidence in the board, and it has transitioned to a more hands-on organization. “Right now the board is actively involved on a daily basis in the organization in every way, from teaching classes to bartending, to being house manager. We’ve all been trained now. We all know everything, which was never the case before. I think that we as a board will continue to expand our role and break down that wall a little bit.”

This new, more engaged board will offer more oversight and support to its executive  director than ever. Flaa’s willingness to step up and dedication to a successful new season notwithstanding, the role is challenging and requires both experience and finesse. While she does not claim nonprofit or theatre-management experience, Flaa says she hopes to marry her business experience with her lifelong love of the performing arts.

Several of the retired board members in the theatre community expressed surprise at the quick replacement. Murdock says the board had to act quickly: “We expected Robyn to announce her retirement sometime this summer, and at that point we anticipated a six-month winding-down while we found somebody new.” But crisis doesn’t wait, and the board needed someone immediately. “Nobody on the board had the time or expertise to step into that role, and that’s when Bear said that Jenn might be able to do it on a temporary basis.”

The board discussed adding “interim” to Flaa’s title, but Murdock says there was concern that it could undermine her in dealing with productions, directors and actors. She adds that Flaa does not have a contract and they still plan to conduct a search for an ideal candidate. For the meantime, Murdock says, “We had to have somebody who was willing to come in and sit in that office and deal with bills and emails and the new season. The computer platforms that PCA was using were crazy, there were like five different platforms and none of them interacted with each other, it was lunacy. That’s where a lot of Jenn’s background has been great. She’s working almost every day with another board member, Roger Tipping, who is also well versed in the computer platforms and interaction, and that’s been great.

Looking ahead, Flaa, whose salary is currently deferred, is planning for the coming season, which promises to feature a mix of classic favorites and contemporary works. She says, “This season we’ll keep everything light, because the world is crazy right now, so you've got a season of primarily musicals and comedies.” The season slate currently includes Jersey Boys, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Haunting of Hill House, Luv, The Last Five Years, and more. Flaa is also working toward both one-act and monologue festivals.

Murdock appreciates the classics and sees musical theater as “comfort food,” but she doesn't want to stop there. She wants to make more use of the Studio Theatre going forward, including working with local theatre groups, filmmakers and writers, to present more progressive and thought-provoking shows.

SPCA stands on the threshold of a new chapter. Flaa says, “The patrons we have here are amazing. They love this place. The best thing that we do is bring magic, and we are bringing the magic.”

Allen remains confident of the “community love and support for this organization that’s always existed. This place is about community, we’re about bringing people together, something we all need now more than ever. I just think the community is gonna come through. We’re raising money to support the community.”

For more information on upcoming events and programs, visit prescottartcenter.org or follow SPCA’s social-media channels.

Lizabeth Rogers covers the local-theatre beat.

Steven Ayres is Editor of 5enses.

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