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ATL Business Chronicle

Column: Theatrical Outfit trying to secure its future

By Maria Saporta
Friday, December 3, 2010

The future of Theatrical Outfit, one of Atlanta’s leading theater companies, has become much brighter with a conditional $500,000 gift from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, part of the Robert W. Woodruff family of foundations.

Theatrical Outfit is in the midst of a $1.685 million campaign that has to be completed by March to secure its future.

Before being able to qualify for the Evans grant, the foundation said Theatrical Outfit would have to raise $500,000 in cash reserves, which will eventually serve as the theater’s endowment. Twelve board members and close friends of the theater raised that money by the end of October, and the Evans Foundation decided to make the gift at its November board meeting.

But the foundation said its grant was contingent on the remaining $685,000 being raised by the March deadline.

That condition is seen as a major driver in the theater being able to raise those dollars in time.

It’s been a roller-coaster ride for Theatrical Outfit, a theater company that has been around since 1976. In 2002, Bill and Peg Balzer made a $1.4 million gift permitting the company to buy the old Herren’s restaurant space and convert it into a theater. Balzer, a retired United Parcel Service Inc. executive, was chairing the theater’s board at the time.

A major capital campaign was launched to raise $4.3 million to renovate the theater, which opened in 2005. But because of the economic downturn, several of those campaign pledges fell through.

So, during the height of the 2008 recession, the situation could not have looked more bleak for Theatrical Outfit.

Its home — the Balzer Theater at Herren’s downtown — had been mortgaged to the tune of $2 million (more than $1 million of that has been paid off). Then the bank said it would be calling in the loan come March 2011.

“The last half of 2008 was a scary time,” said Tom Key, Theatrical Outfit’s executive artistic director. “We had lost so much funding, not so much in ticket sales but from corporations and donors who had been giving major amounts of dollars.”

The theater’s board drastically reduced its full-time staff from 14 to eight. It cut back on its productions and expenses. And it rented out the Balzer Theater to other organizations. That enabled the theater to operate at a surplus in the last year.

But it still had to repay the loans it had taken out on the building as well as a $212,000 line of credit. The $1.65 million campaign will not only pay off all the loans but give the theater company its first-ever endowment.

Under the arrangement, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta will actually own the title of the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, which will prevent the company from borrowing against the property.

Theatrical Outfit, however, will be able to use, manage and control the space without having to pay rent.

“It will be a permanent game-changer for Theatrical Outfit,” Key said. “We will be debt-free, and we will save about $70,000 a year in interest payments. And we will have a $500,000 cash reserve that will function as an endowment after five years.”

By achieving fiscal stability, Key said Theatrical Outfit is headed to becoming one of the nation’s strongest theater companies.

“We aspire to [be] the theater of record for the American South,” Key said. “This will secure the theater company for generations to come.”

Fundraiser joining civil rights center

Native Atlantan Deborah Richardson is coming back to town to serve as executive vice president of fundraising and program development for the National Center for Civil & Human Rights.

Richardson most recently was chief program officer of the Women’s Funding Network in San Francisco. Before moving to California, she was the top executive of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation. Richardson will be joining the Center at a critical time, as it is trying to finish raising enough money to break ground next year.

Richardson said she was motivated to return to Atlanta for this role because human rights are “in peril all around us.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, co-chair of the Center’s board, said she welcomes Richardson’s experience and passion back to Atlanta at a “crucial moment” in the development of the attraction that will be built north of Centennial Olympic Park on the same block as the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coke.

Historic preservation leader

Atlantan Sheffield Hale has joined the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, following in the footsteps of his father, Bradley Hale.

Sheffield Hale, chief counsel for the American Cancer Society, has chaired the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, which is a partner (but not affiliated) with the National Trust. He also has chaired the board of the Atlanta History Center.

“I’ve been a grass-roots preservationist,” said Hale, who also is an environmentalist. “The greenest building is the one that already exists. I think preservation has never been more relevant.”

Currently, the other Atlantan on the National Trust’s board is Mtaminika Youngblood, who spearheaded the rebirth of the Old Fourth Ward and the King Historic District.

CEOs head to Ron Clark

The Atlanta CEO Council will meet at the Ron Clark Academy in southeast Atlanta on Dec. 6 between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Executives including Sig Mosley, Bert Ellis, Kelly Gay, Charlie Paparelli and Wain Kellum will challenge Ron Clark students in a round of “Are you Smarter than an RCAer?”

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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