Theatre Lawrence receives city funding to help with new $6.2 million theater

Artist rendering of Theatre Lawrence’s planned 300-seat theater. The organization has received donations from the Beach Foundation, Tensie Oldfather, The Sunderland Family Foundation and Bobby and Eleanor Patton.

Plans to build a $6.2 million community theater in northwest Lawrence got a last-minute boost from city commissioners on Tuesday.

Commissioners unanimously agreed to pledge $20,000 per year for the next five years to Theatre Lawrence’s efforts to build a new 300-seat theater on property near Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, roughly in front of Free State High.

Supporters of the organization, formerly called the Lawrence Community Theatre, filled the City Hall meeting room and urged commissioners to view the project as a way of improving the city’s quality of life and attracting visitors from outside the city.

“People come from out of town to see our shows,” said Bobby Patton, a member of the theater’s board. “They purchase meals. They stay overnight on occasion. Supporting the arts can result in very tangible gains for the city of Lawrence.”

Members of the theater group now have raised all but $484,000 of the $6.2 million. But the fundraising efforts are facing a time crunch. About $1.5 million worth of pledges are challenge grants that are contingent upon the project reaching its $6.2 million goal by the end of September.

Mary Doveton, executive director of Theatre Lawrence, said that the group’s volunteers are making fundraiser calls on a daily basis and that a large mailing is set to arrive in many area homes this week. She also said the group is considering asking the Douglas County Commission to make a pledge. She said if the group were to lose the $1.5 million in challenge grants, the project likely would no longer be feasible.

“We’re going to get there,” Doveton said. “You can’t get this far and not get over the top.”

City commissioners did express some concern about the timing of the request. The city already has approved its 2012 budget and was not able to rank this project against others that were seeking funding.

But commissioners said they could support the project, in part, because they will use money from the city’s Guest Tax Fund, which comes from travelers who pay a special tax at hotel rooms. Several commissioners said their support was contingent upon the city being able to pay for the pledge with guest tax money rather than property tax funds.

“I know the timing is kind of tough, but if you could accurately project the economic impact this theater will have on the community, I think the analysis would show this is an excellent investment,” said City Commissioner Hugh Carter.

Plans for the theater call for it to have 300 seats, up from about 160 at the current facility, which is located in a former church building at 15th and New Hampshire streets. Doveton estimates that the theater, through its shows and its children’s programming, will be in use about 200 nights per year.