All property owners in Douglas County will be giving Theatre Lawrence a financial push to help the organization reach its goal for building a new theater, office and classroom project in northwestern Lawrence.
Douglas County commissioners agreed unanimously Wednesday evening to give the organization $20,000 next year and to pledge another $20,000 a year for the next four to reach a total of $100,000.
Commissioners decided the money would come out of the $350,000 they reserve each year for economic-development projects. That puts the theater project on the same financial stage as the $433,000 commissioners have committed to infrastructure for a Berry Plastics warehouse expansion and the $100,000 a year commissioners likely will be asked to pump into an anticipated expansion of a bioscience and technology business incubator on Kansas University’s West Campus.
The total $100,000 commitment for the theater project is being added to another $100,000 pledged by the Lawrence City Commission — money intended to move Theatre Lawrence closer to securing a $1 million “challenge” grant offered by the estate of Mabel Woodyard, who has relatives who have been involved in the organization.
To get the grant, Theatre Lawrence needs total donations and pledges of $6.2 million by the organization’s Sept. 30 deadline. With the county’s contribution and future pledges, the organization remains $323,000 short.
Organizers actually need to generate another $423,000 in private donations if they want to hang onto a $500,000 challenge grant offered by the Mabee Foundation of Oklahoma. That grant also is being counted in the $6.2 million total.
Hanging in the balance: whether the organization can move out of its cramped quarters inside a former church at 1501 N.H. and into a new home that can accommodate its performances, youth programs and other operations that have been growing for 35 years.
“We’re making such a positive difference in this community, and we’re asking for so little in return,” said Bobby Patton, a board member for Theatre Lawrence. “If we do not raise this money, our dream will vanish. We will never have another chance. We won’t get this close again. So unless we get the support of you and our community, it’s just going to be a dream that goes unrealized.”
Individual donors, foundations and other sources of financing already have pledged nearly $5.8 million, a total includes the two “challenge” grants. Also included is the land — appraised at more than $700,000 — where the theater would be built in the Bauer Farms development, northwest of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, just south of Free State High School.
“We will make our goal,” said Mary Doveton, executive director of Theatre Lawrence. “One way or another, we will make our goal.”
Before agreeing to contribute money from the county’s economic-development funds — a fund backed by revenues generated from county property taxes — commissioners cautioned that they didn’t want to spend money that might otherwise be available for social services and other programs traditionally supported by the county government.
They agreed that helping support construction of a new 300-seat theater, one billed as being in use for more than 200 nights a year, would be an investment in the community and its quality of life. That, in turn, would help draw retirees to live in the community and attract out-of-town visitors to spend money.
Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who attends at least a half dozen Theatre Lawrence performances a year, noted how the Lawrence community regularly supports tax breaks on job-creation projects that pencil out with $2 or $3 in public benefits for each $1 in taxes abated.
“This is an at least 7.5-to-1 ... return on investment,” Gaughan said. “And that’s just a simple return on the two grants that are out there, not even taking into consideration all the other elements that we get. ...
“I think it’s a great project, and we should be so lucky that every time we look at an economic-development project we get a 7.5-to-1 return.”
Doveton said that construction likely would begin late this winter, with hopes of having the project finished in time to open Theatre Lawrence’s 2013 season. The organization still needs to come up with financing for furnishings and equipment, but that push will be left for a later date.
Say, next month.
“We’re talking to a lot of people,” said Janis Bunker, co-chairwoman of the Theatre Lawrence campaign. “People are being extraordinarily generous.”