Originally Published: July 16, 2012 12:01 a.m.
PRESCOTT - The historic Elks Opera House could be in the hands of a non-profit organization by September, if a recent purchase proposal for the theater is successful.
A proposal process that began in May could culminate at that time with the close of escrow for the transfer of ownership of the theater from the City of Prescott to the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center.
Officials on both sides say, however, that plenty of negotiations, which will be largely private, will take place before that could happen.
"The proposal is a point of negotiation," Prescott City Manager Craig McConnell said this past week, noting that city officials would meet with organization representatives in coming weeks to work out the details.
And he said that those details would remain private until after City Council members can discuss them in closed-door executive session - probably in August.
After that, McConnell said the information would become public "if there is a draft agreement arrived at which is mutually satisfactory to the parties. Until that occurs, it is still in negotiation."
Meanwhile, McConnell maintained that the details of the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center's proposal are not public information.
"It's not a bid; it's a proposal and not publicly opened because it's proprietary," McConnell said. "Our council members have not seen this proposal."
But Dan Barr, an attorney with the Arizona First Amendment Coalition, said this past week that the document was a public record from the time the city opened it.
The Daily Courier submitted an official public records request to the city on Thursday morning to get a copy of the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center's proposal, as well as the city's appraisal of the theater, but had yet to get a response Friday afternoon, other than an acknowledgement of the receipt of the request.
Neither McConnell nor Kevin Lane, the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center's chief spokesman, would discuss the amount of money the proposal offered for the theater.
"I am not in a position to give the details on that," Lane said Friday. But, he added, "Whatever will be drafted will be impressive."
Although informal discussions have been under way for about two years about the possibility of a non-profit organization taking over ownership of the Elks Opera House, the official process began after the Prescott City Council's budget deliberations in mid-May.
At that time, council members gave consensus approval for the city to advertise for sale of the theater. Driving the decision: the more than $100,000 that the city annually puts into subsidization of the theater.
Budget and Finance Director Mark Woodfill said after the May meeting that the Elks regularly falls short of breaking even, and other city funds go toward paying the difference - money the city would save if the theater were privatized.
A record from the city shows that the theater has been in the red by: $116,810 in fiscal year 2009; $193,979 in 2010 (the year the theater was "dark" because of major renovations); $166,997 in 2011; and $88,031 through June 18 of the past 2012 fiscal year.
Soon after the May budget discussion, the city advertised a request for proposals (RFP) for purchase of the Elks Opera House.
The RFP sought groups or individuals interested in buying the Elks, under a number of strict requirements. For instance, the city would require the new owner to:
Preserve the theater as a community venue for performing arts and related purposes.
Maintain the historic quality and integrity of the theater.
Reinforce and promote mutually beneficial relationships among the theater, downtown businesses, and local government, by serving as an economic generator.
Achieve, maintain, restore, and preserve the highest quality of historic architectural and interior design.
Lane said the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center group is willing to follow the restrictions, and put in some of its own.
"The deed restrictions, from my client's perspective, would be even more restrictive," Lane said, stressing that the organization aims to develop a "first-class, extensive performing arts center," which would be a top-notch venue for music, dance and acting.
Lane added that the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center stems from the "same principles and family that did the 'Tis Art Gallery (in the historic Knights of Pythias building on Cortez Street). "What you see there as far as quality...it's the same players."
Elisabeth Ruffner, the secretary of the Elks Opera House Foundation, also mentioned the quality that went into renovating the Knights of Pythias building for the 'Tis Gallery.
"I'm very pleased," Ruffner said of the group's interest in taking on the Elks Opera House as well. "Personally, I appreciate very much what they've done with that remarkable Knights of Pythias building."
After working for years as advocates and fundraisers for the Elks Opera House, Ruffner noted that the Foundation is now turning to doing productions at the Elks, and she is hopeful that would continue under new owners.
Lane expressed similar hopes. "None of that changes," he said, adding that the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center would be "open to any other local group."
The city conducted a June 29 proposal opening, and received just one proposal - from the Elks Theater Performing Arts Center.
A pre-proposal conference in mid-June generated a number of questions from the group about the requested deed restrictions, as well as the city obligations for the building.
Among other things, the city's written answers included information about the amount of money that has gone into the theater through the years.
"The City of Prescott's contributions for the purchase ($250,000) and various restoration efforts totals $1,382,038," stated the answers. "Additionally, $501,465 in CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) and Heritage Grant funds were obtained through the city's efforts."
The answers also stated that the Elks Opera House foundation has reported contributing $1,528,901 to the theater's major restoration effort. Of that, individual contributions ranged from more than $1.25 million from the James Family Trust, to $500 for the purchase of seats, to smaller contributions, starting at $1 or less in donation boxes.
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