Next act for Schwartz Center? Public to be part of talks to reopen arts venue

The Schwartz Center in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Because community involvement is critical to the success of the Schwartz Center for the Arts, citizens will be at the heart of the discussion to reopen the facility during a process that’s to begin this fall.

Dover City Council President Tim Slavin said Wednesday that a working group will be announced later this month, with a public charette, or meeting of stakeholders, slated for November and an ultimate reopening celebration eyed for May 4, which is the Friday of the Dover Days Festival in 2018.

“There’s been a groundswell of support for making this work,” he said. “People understand it’s a community problem and it needs to be a community solution.”

Since the Schwartz Center closed June 30 citing a lack of money, city leaders have heard from concerned citizens, civic representatives and arts leaders from Kent County and beyond who’ve offered reaction and ideas for reopening the historic building on South State Street in downtown Dover. Mr. Slavin said he’s met with the presidents of Wesley College and Delaware State University, who own the property, and he’s talked to state arts officials.

As Wesley President Robert Clark and David Sheppard, general counsel for Delaware State University, said in an interview this summer, while both institutions are committed to leasing the building to an arts group, they were not in positions to continue subsidizing the venue. Since those colleges stepped in more than a decade ago to aid the nonprofit board running the Schwartz, the two institutions have invested at least $4 million in the center, according to Mr. Sheppard.

In addition, from 2007 to 2015, DSU and Wesley contributed $120,000 annually to the Schwartz.

Wesley and DSU representatives were unable to be reached Thursday, but Mr. Slavin said the college and university are amenable to plans to reopen the facility with a new financial arrangement.

“They did a lot to kind of keep the center open in the last decade or more,” he said. “We have to pivot away from a different model that doesn’t rely on their funding. Their core mission is education.”

The goal of the working group, with input from the public, would be to create a governance model, a business plan for operating the center, a development plan for raising money and a talent plan, or schedule of events.

Part of the funding could be a grant from the state Division of the Arts. Mr. Slavin said the Schwartz leaders had withdrawn a grant proposal to the division, which state arts leaders would be willing to reconsider to help a new governing board reopen the facility.

“The real challenge is we’ve got lots of people interested … but it cost money. You have to convert that interest into donations,” he said. “You’re not going to run the Schwartz Center on any ticket price.”

That’s a reality that former board members of the Schwartz Center over the years have faced and an issues that arts leaders have said can be solved through raising a mix of corporate sponsorships, private donations and grants.

While Mr. Slavin has been involved in discussions to reopen the Schwartz and city government may facilitate discussions going forward, he said the city of Dover doesn’t have plans to take over the building’s ownership. “We don’t own theaters and we shouldn’t own theaters. That’s not what people pay their property taxes for.”

After inviting representatives from the city, the business and arts communities, civic leaders and directors from the Schwartz Center’s board to serve on the working group, Mr. Slavin said its members could be announced by the end of September.

As for the talent plan, Mr. Slavin said the initial idea is to focus on community arts groups that need performance space, such as the Dover-based Children’s Theatre that called the Schwartz Center its home for four performances a year and special events since 2003.

“Many groups need a stage. They would be thrilled to be invited to perform here,” he said.

Culling local talent and community arts groups would meet their need for space and avoid the need to raise the finances to pay top-notch, professional acts upfront at the risk of seeing low ticket sales — a struggle of many arts venues, including the Schwartz Center, he said.

That plan also avoids competition for revenue with successful facilities that have long competed with the Schwartz, such as The Grand in Wilmington, The Freeman Stage in Selbyville, the Milton Theatre, the Avalon Theater in Easton, Maryland, and the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.

“We can learn from all those places, but I don’t think we want to initially be in competition with them,” he said.

The closure this summer wasn’t the first time the stage went dark in the 550-seat theater. After decades of operation, the original Capital Theater closed in 1982. It reopened in 2001 after an aggressive, capital campaign driven by the Friends of the Capitol Theater, raised $3.3 million to renovate and modernize the building. Funds included $1.3 million from the General Assembly and $1.2 million in grants from philanthropic groups, including the Longwood Foundation and Delaware Community Foundation.

Though it’s been shuttered to the general public since late June, Mr. Slavin said Delaware State University and Wesley, which has hosted an event since that time, are taking care of the three-story, brick building originally constructed in 1904.

Mr. Slavin has toured the building since the Schwartz board vacated the property and said he was pleased with its condition.

“It’s an empty building, but it’s not unmonitored. I was impressed with their stewardship of the building,” he said.

“We want this (theater) to be part of the heartbeat of our city.”

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