Schwartz Center reopening discussed

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

DOVER — A new name, board members financially invested in the venue, and clearly defined fiscal responsibilities of property owners and the tenant are key criteria for successfully reopening the Schwartz Center for the Arts.

A marketing campaign that can track its success, a dedicated volunteer base and a diverse slate of programming also are critical.

“To get this thing going quickly again, we believe that the board that is appointed to come in needs to bring money to the table and needs to bring significant money to the table and that’s kind of a matching grant that will give confidence to others who are going to give to this entity,” said Gregg Moore. “That board has to have skin in the game from day one.”

For fundraising success, a paid staffer should be charged with generating revenue from a variety of sources, with private contributions, sponsorships, grants and eventually an endowment.

But the short term goal is to get donations coming in.

“We need money now,” Mr. Moore said.

He was among the participants in a workshop Tuesday that gathered community and arts leaders to discuss five areas — operations, financial and fundraising, talent and booking, marketing and promotion and governance — and seek consensus for short-term goals moving forward.

The downtown Dover venue closed in late June citing financial troubles, but the 550-seat theater, originally constructed in 1904, has faced problems long before last summer. 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.

More than a decade ago when funding decreased, a partnership was formed to salvage operations and Wesley College and Delaware State University became involved to help the nonprofit board running the Schwartz. Since those entities stepped in, they have invested at least $4 million in the center.

Tracey Miller, then-president of the board of directors, said this summer that despite efforts to raise money and respond to community feedback for programming, the nonprofit couldn’t make enough to sustain operations. It did not carry debt.

“What led to this decision is we just ran out of money,” she said in June.

DSU general counsel David Sheppard this summer outlined the funding provided by the university and Wesley over the years. In addition to that $4 million, the higher education institutions, which jointly own the building, contributed $120,000 annually from 2007 to 2015.

He and Wesley President Robert Clark have said that while both institutions are committed to leasing the building to an arts group, they were not in positions to continue subsidizing the venue.

Dover City Council President Tim Slavin, who has led the grass-roots effort to reopen the Schwartz, said that DSU and Wesley were not asked to participate in Tuesday’s workshops.

Mr. Slavin said he will present Tuesday’s findings to their leaders.

A new start

Given its history, the arts venue needs a new name and rebranding efforts to be successful in raising money, said Mr. Moore, in presenting the findings of his group’s consensus to the audience Tuesday.

No one present disagreed when he asked their opinion.

“We’ve got baggage,” he said. “We need a new name. We need to have a new identity. We need to reestablish who we are.”

Finding creative uses for the second- and third-floor spaces, from hosting school graduations to offering babysitting during shows and opening a restaurant were proposed to generate revenue.

The governance group lauded the fact that the nonprofit status is intact, but said any new group opening the center must have a business plan and a long-term lease that outlines the fiscal responsibility of the nonprofit and the landlord.

Talent and booking group members suggested a diverse slate of community-based programming with a handful of big shows each year sponsored by corporations to back their expense.

Music festivals, stand-up comedy shows and dinner and a movie night were all ideas.

Given that operating the facility is the biggest day-to-day expenditure, Dave Hugg, who facilitated the operations work group, said standard operating procedures need to be developed. “There should be written plans for every aspect of running this operation,” he said, from planning for security issues to dealing with faulty air conditioning.

Examining the best practices of other successful theaters in the region was suggested as well as creating a cost analysis for opening the doors, maintaining building systems and paying for emergency repairs.

Marketing group members identified an imperative problem: fix the now-dark Schwartz Center website so residents and prospective visitors know what’s going on to bring the venue back.

“We need to make sure that even if we have one page that depicts our efforts and things that we’re tying to do in this space online, so people don’t say ‘Well, I guess they’re not doing anything,’” said Jackie Malcolm, who facilitated that group.

Targeting audiences where they get information, from print to social media, promoting consistent messages in the community, tracking what’s working and changing people’s misperceptions, whether its about parking or safety, were also goals of that group.

“The way in which you do that is to show people,” she said.

Ashley Dawson is managing editor of the Delaware State News. Email adawson@newszap.com.

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