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8:59 PM Thu, Sept. 20th

Higher rates likely when Elks Opera House reopens

PRESCOTT - With a more attractive, comfortable and functional Elks Opera House apparently will come higher costs for users.

Even as Prescott City Council members heard accolades from a number of Elks supporters Tuesday about the expected benefits of the $1.7 million restoration that is under way, they also heard a proposal from city staff members to increase rent for those who use the theater for their events.

And according to some local event organizers, that could result in pricing some local events out of the market.

City Manager Steve Norwood introduced the proposed rate increases by acknowledging that some "sticker shock" might come with the re-opening of the Elks later this spring.

While the rates would vary depending on the individual needs of the event, Norwood has estimated the average increase at about 50 percent.

The rate increases are justified because of the increased quality of the theater, Norwood said, and are necessary to help the Elks close the gap in its previous lop-sided expenses/revenue scenario.

In a typical year before the restoration, Norwood said the Elks brought in about $60,000 to $70,000 in revenue, and had about $150,000 in expenses. After the opening, he said the city hopes the theater will bring in $175,000 to $200,000 per year, with expenses at about $200,000.

Although the Elks was a "decent theater" before the renovation that began in the summer of 2009, Norwood said, "Now we're in a whole different realm."

The 10 months of work will result in improvements that include not only a return of many of the original elegant and ornate touches in the 1905 theater, but also improvements to the sound system, structural and fire safety, handicap accessibility, and seating as well.

Plenty of people were on hand Tuesday to point out that the upgraded theater would be a boon to tourism in downtown Prescott.

"We view the grand re-opening of the Elks as the beginning of a new era for historic downtown Prescott," Barbara Bruce of the Ponderosa Hotel Management Group told the council.

Added local historian Melissa Ruffner: "It is so incredible to see how the old girl has come back to life."

But on the rate increases, the council also heard from Jenny King of the Prescott Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, who urged the city to accommodate the needs of local nonprofit groups when setting the rates.

While Norwood said the city would "do what we can to make it accessible and affordable" on weeknights, he added, "When it comes to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, there are no discounts."

Afterward, King mentioned the Prescott Film Festival and Arizona Revue as examples of local events that might have a difficult time paying the greater Elks rates.

On Thursday, Bob Bell, president of the Arizona Revue, agreed that the musical program could struggle to generate enough revenue to pay the new higher Elks fees.

"We were kind of barely able to make it as it was," Bell said, noting that the city was considering raising the previous rental rate of $700 per day to about $1,000 per day.

Clyde Score, who has partnered with Bell on producing the Arizona Revue, expressed similar concerns.

"It was really tough the last couple of years to make a profit - not just because of the fee they charged," Score said, but also because of other costs such as 10 percent of door proceeds and dressing-room charges.

Noting that he has performed in the Elks since 1990, Score said, "The Elks is a beautiful theater. I just hope they don't price themselves out of business."

The city expects much of the restoration work at the theater to be complete by early May, and it is planning a gala grand opening on July 24.

As a part of Tuesday's presentation, Administrative Services Director Mic Fenech announced that the gala event would include performances by the Phoenix Opera and the Perpetuum Jazzile, an a cappella choir from Slovenia that performs jazz and popular music.

Fenech added that the theater also has booked a number of other events throughout September, October and November.

No council vote occurred during Tuesday's workshop, but council members expressed little opposition about the higher rates.

The massive renovation project has been a collaborative effort between the city, the Elks Opera House Foundation, and local donor, the Harold James Family Trust, which originally contributed $1 million to the foundation's fundraising efforts, and recently added another $250,000.