Introducing a Historic Building Preservation Fee: What is It? And Why Should You Care?
Article written by Ruth B. Tonachel
Did you know that Bradford County is the only county in Pennsylvania – and perhaps in the entire USA – with three operational historic theatres showing movies? This is a stunning achievement for a rural county in which over 50% of students qualify for free lunch in many of our school districts.
While there are historic theatres here and there across the country that various municipalities, non-profits and commercial entities are trying to preserve, part of what makes the three Bradford County theatres – The Sayre, The Keystone and The Rialto – so unique is that they are in constant use.
With movies running every day of the year, as well as offices, dance and yoga classes (Keystone), art classes, concerts, Missoula Children’s Theatre residencies, community events, plays, and a movie museum (Rialto), these buildings are not reserved for elite black-tie affairs like many historic theatres in more upscale places. A new monthly program called “Community Conversations for Social Repair” is starting in April using films and discussion to address tough issues like drug abuse and Alzheimer’s disease. Our theatres are here to serve the community. As a result, the buildings get hard use!
Historic theatres are a gift to communities that still have them. However, they also present special challenges. When something needs to be repaired or replaced, costs can be exponentially higher than on a modern building that does not have to follow historic preservation guidelines. And, because they are old buildings, a lot of maintenance is required!
In the words of Elaine Poost, Executive Director of the Bradford County Regional Arts Council (BCRAC) which owns and manages the three theatres, “We are the stewards of these wonderful buildings. It’s part of our mission to take care of them for future generations.”
Old buildings that are not preserved eventually decay or become completely altered in appearance and/or use. In cases like the overly large mansions of the timber and coal eras, dividing them up into apartments and retrofitting for energy savings is a way to keep them from being abandoned. Historic context is lost while perhaps only facades remain. If not preserved, historic buildings often end up falling down or being torn down.
When it comes to historic theatres, few in Pennsylvania are showing movies. Movie theatres overall – including drive-ins – have seen waves of closings over the past 50 years. In the early 1970’s the fuel crisis drove heating costs up and a number of movie theatres closed as a result. In the 1980’s and 90’s the growth of shopping malls with corporate multiplex movie theatres killed many independent movie theatres. Mall theatres are the product of a construction model that uses the cheapest possible methods and materials –the polar opposite of historic preservation.
Forced conversion from film to digital occurred here in 2013 and strangled another group of theatres that didn’t have the resources to purchase new equipment required by movie companies to show current movies. That cost was approximately $75,000 per screen. For the BCRAC, the total came to $450,000 for equipment, projection room redesign (at the Rialto), larger projection windows installed and silver screens for 3D. On top of these costs, the formula by which the companies determine how much they take from every ticket sold has continued to make showing movies highly competitive and difficult.
Despite all of these challenges, BCRAC has survived and continues to look forward. After purchasing the three remaining theatres in Bradford County between 1988 & 1995 – and after major renovations of each – there has been continued maintenance, a Marquee replacement at all three theatres, the flood of 2011, conversion to digital and a myriad of other expenses large and small. Still, theatre staff keep the big picture in mind and take seriously their mission of promoting the arts in these historic buildings.
Last summer, part of the gutter and cornice on the front side of the Keystone theatre fell off. It turned out that the gutter was actually a wooden trough built right into the brick wall of the building. The 1886 wood had rotted away after years of funneling water and when it gave way, the decorative cornice work came too, causing a dangerous situation on the street below. Repairs all had to be done according to historic building standards to preserve the exact look of the building. The cost to fix the fallen gutter and cornices was over $100,000 and only half of the entire gutter was replaced at that time.
The BCRAC has set up a committee that includes knowledgeable contractors from around the county to do a structural study and assessment of ice and water damage and other upcoming needs for each building. It’s already known that all three theatres are in need of re-pointing work on exterior brick walls. A new roof is looming for the Keystone along with completion of the gutter work. Heating and cooling system upgrades and/or replacement are also on the horizon.
Given the cost of maintaining these amazing old buildings, BCRAC is continually urged by accountants and consultants to raise ticket prices. With the bulk of movie ticket income going to the movie companies, it seemed to Elaine and others that this would not help much. That is when the idea of adding a Historic Theatre Preservation Fee began to surface as an alternative. No-one likes to increase prices, but it’s hoped that audiences will be more accepting of the increase if they understand that 100% of the new $1 fee on April 5 will go to preserving the building in which they are enjoying a show. And movie tickets will still cost far less than at the mall!
When you go to see a packed movie at any one of the three historic theatres in Bradford County, you might think that selling all those tickets is bringing in a bundle for the BCRAC. Here is why that is not the case: movie royalty payments! These are the fees that the company that owns the movies charges theatres to show them. This is not a flat fee to show the movie; it is a formula based on tickets sold. When you buy a movie ticket in Towanda, Canton or Sayre, almost 70% of what you pay is collected by the movie company. If the movie is an overall flop nationwide – or also if it does super well – the movie company can come back as much as nine months later and claim another 3-6% more on all the tickets sold. There is nothing that theatre owners can do about this if they want to keep getting current movies. “They rule,” says BCRAC Director Poost.
In addition to taking the lion’s share of ticket income, the movie companies also control what local theatres can show, when they can get films and how long they keep them. Thanks to lobbying efforts by the National Association of Theatre Owners, in recent years the base royalty rate has dropped a bit from 90% and fewer movies have to be kept for weeks on end. It’s progress but not enough….
So, just how do the theatres and BCRAC function at all given the practices of the movie companies with regard ticket revenue?
At present, revenue streams include: Donations / Annual campaign; Concession sales; Grants from the PA Council on the Arts and United Way for programs; Corporate and Individual sponsors for specific shows or events and occasional larger grants from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, USDA and other government agencies to help with bigger “bricks and mortar” projects. The drawback of these larger grants is that they can take a lot of work and as much as two or three years to obtain. And all the work done to apply does not guarantee approval.
United Way helps to support youth arts programming with about $17,000 annually for the Schooltime Youth series of plays, National Theatre Live Shows (films of top notch theatre productions), Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT) residencies, and summer arts programs. Schooltime plays are professional live theatre productions for student groups (including homeschoolers) coming from all over the county. MCT residencies are weeklong theatre residences for children from Kindergarten through 12th grade. These are very popular programs. Each Schooltime show and MCT residency costs about $6000 or more to bring in – totaling about $45,000 per year. Students or their schools pay $6 each for tickets for Schooltime shows and participation in MCT is $20. Nevertheless, while the theatre is packed for Schooltime productions, the BCRAC is often losing money on them….
Adding a Historic Building Preservation Fee to ticket purchases will not fix everything that needs to be taken care of at the three theatres. However, it will be a significant help in keeping these special landmarks intact in our communities. If there had been a $1 fee added to ticket sales in 2018, it would have brought in $65,000!
Other ways to support the theatres include purchase of personalized bricks in front of each theatre, seat purchases, movie memberships and sponsorships. These amazing buildings can also be rented for birthday parties, weddings, meetings, lectures and other events.
Sometimes we grow accustomed to having a cultural institution in our community and start to take it for granted. It’s important to recognize that continued support is necessary in order to keep the things we cherish alive – especially when these buildings are so old!!
With 133 years on Main St., Towanda, the Keystone Theatre (former Hale’s Opera House) is the oldest operating theatre in Northeast PA. Opened on the last day of 1914, the Sayre Theatre is not far behind at 105. And the Rialto (built as the Crawford Theatre in 1912) is an amazing gem in a town as small as Canton! Over the years, community support has been crucial in keeping all of these buildings standing. We ask that you welcome the new Historic Building Preservation Fee as a nearly painless way to contribute to their future.
And, if you are able to make a larger donation to help, please do! These local historic treasures need – and deserve – your continued support.