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Give historic theaters a hand

In the wake of governmental relief programs that extended a lifeline for businesses to save jobs and survive the pandemic comes a request that the state create a $10 million fund for Connecticut's historic theaters, including the Garde in New London. The theaters closed in March and gradually lopped off programing further and further into the future. The tickets they sold amount to a liability on their ledgers, although one they are glad to have. They have no rental income for anything from birthday parties to Broadway shows. Most employees were furloughed or laid off months ago.

The theaters are seeking enough life support so that they can emerge when COVID-19 loses its grip and help guide life back to something like normal.  

With far more need than cash, can Connecticut afford to do that? Don't unemployment, food, rental and health care assistance come first? Can't the theaters — and other nonprofits — get enough help from donations?

It is a dilemma — unless we reframe the question. Don't underestimate the economic recovery role of the Garde and its ilk.

The mayors of the cities that host the six theaters — Hartford, Waterbury, New Haven, Stamford, Torrington and New London — and locally the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments and the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region (SECTER) looked at the key role of the theaters in stimulating the economy. They support the proposal because their cities will need downtown entertainment, restaurant patrons and night life, not hulking empty buildings.

This kind of support is actually nothing new. The Garde and other early 20th-century movie palaces were more or less closed by 1970, giving cities like New London the problem of what to do with big downtown auditoriums without audiences. The buildings sat and mouldered, the Capitol Theater on Bank Street left to rot. What saved the others from becoming blighted enough to demolish were the economic development projects of the 1990s, justified by Republican Gov. John Rowland not for the love of theater and culture per se, but because preserving them would turn an economic minus into a plus. Private investment and donations followed the public lead.

Thus was reborn the working model of an entertainment attraction to revive downtowns and ripple its impact to surrounding communities. Ever since, the state has kept up its support. In the fiscal year that began July 1, the Garde is to get $154,000 in state aid, about three months' operating costs. If the $10 million now proposed were set aside, the Garde's share would be $600,000, enough to keep the building in shape for a year and ramp up for reopening when that becomes safe and audiences feel secure.

People don't go to the Garde because they have to, they go because they want to. In lengthening days without live indoor performances, they are hanging on to tickets for shows that will probably take the stage, maybe, someday, when there is a vaccine. To be in an audience again will be a pleasure and a thrill, tinged perhaps with anxiety after months of staying home. It will be healing. It is something to look forward to.

Whether the state should and can set aside scarce funds for the historic theaters comes down to to the economic question of protecting its investment, but also to rebuilding community. When it's safe once again to gather in large groups, people will want to go to a show. They will eat out. They will do it again.

If it makes it easier to justify allocating the funds, the state should go with the loan model, which it used as part of the original funding of the Garde renovations. Some of those funds are still controlled by SECTER and used for investment in local businesses. Factor in long-term repayment and, perhaps, the option of qualifying to turn a loan into a grant.

Should the theaters have to seek private donations? Of course, and they have never stopped. It's the job of nonprofit institutions to know the giving trends and follow the money. With the help of a cash jolt from the state, whatever staff and volunteers are still around can make pitches to donors. Their message should be that the economy and society will recover faster if the well-loved entertainment venues are around to help with the return of normalcy. They can't do that if the plywood goes up and the heat goes off.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

 

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