The city-owned Majestic Theater in Corvallis is facing a budget crisis that may result in fewer shows at the beloved institution, a prospect that has some in the community campaigning the city for more money.
City leaders acknowledge the theater needs more full-time workers to put on more productions, getting to a point that it may be able to sustain itself. Right now, it doesn’t — although it’s not far off compared to other Parks and Recreation programs — requiring the city to subsidize its operations.
But even as revenues are expected the increase about 11.5% next year at the Majestic, the city is facing tight budget constraints all around and wants to reduce its subsidy.
What once was a plan to hire an additional two full-time employees is now projected to mean more of the same, which means sustainability is further off.
That’s not acceptable to a growing contingent.
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“The Majestic Ambassadors will be organizing hundreds of our community members who are excited to share with you how much the Majestic means to them,” a letter to Corvallis city officials states. “How it is critical to their mental and physical health.”
The letter, written by Moth Kelley on behalf of the Majestic Ambassadors, a group of volunteer workers supporting the theater, was received by city officials in April. Kelley, who also directs shows including the upcoming “Matilda the Musical,” wrote advocating for a 2022-2023 fiscal year budget including two full-time production staff positions.
“Over the last six years, I have spent thousands of hours at the Majestic creating arts and culture performances that have brought in over $100,000 in revenue,” wrote Kelley, who uses they/them pronouns.
Kelley highlighted what they called an impossible task: part-time staff laboring on a wide variety of shows while unable to work more than 20 hours a week in most cases, and doing so for low wages given the skills and experience needed.
Keeping the doors open
A combination of volunteers and part-time workers fill many of the behind-the-scenes roles at the Majestic, according to a document provided by Meredith Petit, Corvallis Parks and Recreation director. There are two only benefited positions: the full-time theater supervisor and a three-quarter-time senior administrative specialist.
The city has owned the Majestic since 1985, but it was operated by nonprofit management companies until that became unsustainable, according to Petit, who said the city put Parks and Recreation in charge of operations in 2015, establishing a three-year trial period to see if the theater could break even financially.
In 2018, the city determined the Majestic would need additional funding, the document states, noting that revenue generated by registration fees, rentals, and ticket sales were not enough to produce shows, conveniently staff operations and maintain the facility.
Reserve funds, the city’s savings account, helped cover budget shortfalls during years in which exceeded revenue, along with “minimal” general fund subsidization, according to the document.
In 2019, voters approved a local option levy directing additional property tax revenue to, among other city offerings, the Majestic to grow programming and battle inflationary personnel costs related to wages and benefits, Petit said. It also covers costs related to equipment, supplies, contracted productions, utilities and licenses.
But expenses have grown faster than revenue, perpetuating an expanding funding gap. Petit noted the amount of general fund subsidy has historically been “significantly lower” compared to allocations for other recreational facilities such as the Corvallis Community Center and the Osborn Aquatic Center, according to the document.
“Subsequently, the theater supports its operations through fundraising efforts, donations and grants at a higher proportion than other facilities, recognizing an average of nearly $140,000 in donations each year,” she said.
Balancing the budget
The Parks and Recreation Department has a proposed budget for fiscal year 2022-2023 of around $10.4 million, a 5.5% increase from the previous budget of $9.8 million, mostly attributed to increases in wages benefits full-time staffs and, as well as internal service charges.
According to the document from Parks and Recreation, the Majestic’s share of that is $754,000, up from the previous $721,000. Projected revenue was increased from $645,100 to $719,700, while the general fund subsidy was decreased from $75,900 to $34,300.
If full-time staff isn’t increased at the Majestic Theatre, there will be fewer productions and programs, according to the document, which states fewer programs will impact projected revenue, and addressing that could mean raising program registration fees, hunting for donations, sponsorships and grants and promoting rental facilities.
A future solution could include an increase in dedicated revenue generated from a renewed levy, Petit said.
Although the proposed budget reduces the general fund subsidy, it’s still in development. Without more full-time Majestic staff, revenue projections drop by around $170,000, thereby raising the subsidy to more than $200,000, according to the document.
Petit said Parks and Recreation will evaluate whether to shift resources to make up for the loss internally from other areas.
And none of this speaks to deferred maintenance and upgrades needed for the facility itself, such as seating replacement, stage refurbishing, new rigging, and air system improvements. Nor does it address the citywide issue of personnel costs outpacing revenue growth and straining budgets across the board.
Doing a lot with just a little
Before the pandemic, the Majestic Theater hosted more than 130 performances a year as well as programs and educational and enrichment classes, reaping nearly 80,000 hours of volunteer work, according to the document from Parks and Recreation.
When the pandemic shuttered many businesses either temporarily or forever, the Majestic pivoted to a virtual stage, getting creative and streaming shows online, Petit said. The theater was also diligent in finding grants to fill funding gaps, she said.
Guided by its Diversity Council, the theater has worked at becoming a more inclusive and accessible venue and engaging with people from historically marginalized communities, the document states, and grants have been pursued for accessibility features including hearing assistance systems, closed captioning for videos and streaming , and development of open captioning and audio description programs.
Reserves funded the initial phase of a facility improvement project in progress that enhances ADA-seating, replacing seats to better accommodate those using wheelchairs and others.
But the burden on Majestic staff is also apparent. The document states part-time work is challenging because wages and hour limits that result in turnover, forcing constant retraining, inconsistencies, and burnout among permanent staff, adding the quality of productions can suffer as a result.
Help, not just wanted, but needed
This year, Parks and Recreation submitted requests for two full-time positions for the Majestic: a technical operations coordinator and a video coordinator.
The churn, Kelley wrote to the city, means there have been times in the past in which production staff went weeks without a full day off.
“For many years now we have been aware of the unsustainable nature of the current Majestic operational model, lacking as it does the full-time worker support it needs to be successful,” they wrote.
Theater Supervisor Jimbo Ivy often works 60-plus hours a week filling not only his primary role but also supplementing whatever positions are vacant or need support, according to Kelley. Despite the grueling pace, the staff aren’t able to fully support shows, them overworked and stressed over leaving the quality of work, Kelley wrote.
To minimize the impact on the city’s general fund from adding two full-time positions, budget cuts could be made in other areas, set pieces, costumes and other production items, according to Kelley.
“We accepted this and told (Ivy) he had our support in making these cuts alongside others because we needed people more than we needed things,” they wrote.
Budgets are value statements
Kelley wrote that they were horrified to discover the proposed 2022-2023 budget slashed general fund support, which they said can only mean fewer shows. Meanwhile, the mounting pressure at the Majestic has resulted in several workers leaving or announcing departures in the past two months, according to Kelley.
“As they say, budgets are value statements,” Kelley wrote. “And the statement from the city of Corvallis seemed to be that even with no impact to the general fund, Majestic Theater would never get the full time support that it needed.”
The result of fewer workers has been Ivy and others taking on long days of extra work.
“This situation is untenable and unacceptable to us, the community that the Majestic serves,” Kelley wrote. “We ask that the City Council work with the Majestic Theater supervisor and senior (Parks and Recreation) staff to find a way to provide this critical support for our community.”
The Corvallis City Council and the Budget Commission will hold several meetings beginning in May to review the proposed budget. The meetings are open to the public virtually and members of the public can provide written or verbal comments for consideration. Written testimony is strongly recommended.
The Budget commission has a public hearing set for May 11 for input. The council is slated to host a public hearing on the proposed budget on June 6.
“There’s no question that the Majestic Theater is a valuable community asset,” Petit said. “It’s really the hub of the Parks and Recreation arts and culture programming. But additional resource is hard to come by and it’s a balancing act to prioritize our all of our department programs and services based on the resources available.”
Cody Mann covers Benton County and the cities of Corvallis and Philomath. He can be contacted at 541-812-6113 or Cody.Mann@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter via @News_Mann_.
“This situation is untenable and unacceptable to us, the community that the Majestic serves.” ~Moth Kelley, Majestic Ambassadors