The Fort Pierce Commission hopes to stop Sunrise Theatre financial hemorrhaging through the bidding process

FORT PIERCE – City commissioners and staff racked their collective brains during a March 23 workshop to come up with a solution to the COVID-induced hemorrhaging plaguing the Sunrise Theatre for the last 12 months, ultimately deciding to put the historic facility’s operations out to bid.

City Manager Nick Mimms set the stage that day for the special meeting dedicated to keeping the revered South Second Street theatre operating in Downtown Fort Pierce.

“In your backup documentation today, we have our Professional Facilities Management final consulting report that was completed in 2019,” he said. “We also have final information from a five-year period that our director of finance will go over and review with you. We have our economic impact presentation and event projections through the end of this fiscal year, as well as our 2021-22 season schedule. We also have recommendations for moving forward.”

Finance Director Johanna Morris first guided the Commission through a brief financial overview of the Sunrise Theatre, which shut down last March during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and reopened nine months later at only 50 percent capacity.

“Where we are year-to-date, we’ve taken in $220,000 in revenue and netting the depreciation, $476,000 in expenses,” she said. “So, we are at a loss of about $256,000. We have not made the $450,000 transfer as of yet, but that is where we area with our revenue and the current expenses.”

Commissioners approved the latest financial transfusion referred to by Ms. Morris during their March 15 meeting when they decided to transfer $225,000 from the Fort Pierce Redevelopment Agency and the same amount from the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund. Even so, the nearly half a million dollars won’t be enough to stop the \bleeding.

“You’ll see currently for the fiscal year to-date, we’re about $567,000 short, [and] that’s netting the $450,000 transfer that you all approved in March,” she said. “I also included the restricted capital that’s there, the capital expenditures or expense that’s on every ticket. The number’s showing negative for our fiscal year-to-date number because we’ve had to refund some ticket costs, but the balance is $224,000, net the negative amount.”

As soon as Ms. Morris finished, Commissioner Curtis Johnson Jr. asked for more clarification.

“After the $450,000’s been applied, there’s still a negative of $567,877 remaining?” he asked.

“Correct,” she answered.

“That’s not forecasted, that’s hard [costs],” Commissioner C. Johnson continued.

“That’s actual money,” Ms. Morris emphasized.

For his part, Mr. Mimms insisted the Sunrise Theatre was not alone in its financial crisis.

“One of the industries hit the hardest during the pandemic has been the theatrical performance and venue side of business,” he said. “That’s all over the United States, and Fort Pierce is no exception. We’re struggling just as other municipalities and other event venues are.”

Sunrise Theatre Executive Director Sharon Engle then joined the discussion, describing the progress made since reopening last fall to limited capacity and mostly cancelled performances.

“Currently we are operating at 50 percent capacity [and] only to rental activity,” she said. “We had a few [larger reserved] performances that we presented at 50 percent capacity, [but] we stopped doing that after our last performance of Preacher Larson on March 12. Now we’re only open to rental activity, and I have revenue projections based on that through Sept. 30, this current fiscal year.”

Although the scheduled events include both mainstage and black box performances, she said the fact top-name performers aren’t currently touring has severely hindered the theatre’s bottom line. While the Sunrise Theatre saw approximately $1.2 million in revenue in the year prior to COVID-19 devasting the economy, Ms. Engle only projects $130,252 through the rest of this fiscal year after deducting expenses.

“These numbers are based on events that would happen during May and June of dance schools bringing in their recital performances, and with a couple of added mainstage shows from outside promoters,” she explained.

Mayor Linda Hudson then asked the Sunrise director for a ray of hope on increasing capacity, which would, in turn, increase revenue.

“When do you see that going back to something approaching normal?” she asked.

Ms. Engle believes a touring August show by a 1980s rock band might just be the ticket since those performance frequently net the theatre upwards of $30,000, including concession revenue.

“We’re all looking at it being in the fall, October, as our date of being at 100 percent,” she said. “I have this August date for One Night of Queen. I’m hopeful, but in a week I could get a call that One Night of Queen isn’t going to happen. It’s not because we can’t do it – it’s because other markets can’t do the shows, so the whole tour falls apart.”

A more promising lifeline to get the Sunrise Theatre temporarily off life support could come in the form of a federal grant aimed at resurrecting performance venues sucker-punched by the coronavirus.

“The federal government, in their latest package, included a Shuttered Venues Operator Grant, and the intent is so small, mid-sized and bigger venues are able to reopen,” she said. “With the grant, the award is 45 percent of your 2019 gross revenues. In my calculations, our award for this grant would be $1 million to $1.3 million.”

Mr. Mimms, however, tempered that optimism with a dose of reality.

“Sharon is going to be working with our friends at Indian River State College to help finalize the grant application, which opens April 8, 2021, and that gives us a glimmer of hope to get through this fiscal year,” he said. “If we do not receive this infusion of cash, we cannot continue to operate past May.”

Since those potential grant funds would only provide the Sunrise financial solidity into early next year, both he and Ms. Engle offered commissioners a separate multi-pronged solution that included hiring Professional Facilities Management of Providence, R.I. that conducted the 2019 theatre analysis and issuing a request for proposal for a new theatre operator.

“We need to start drafting the RFP, we need to start working with PFM, we need to get moving because we cannot sit stagnant and allow the upcoming calendar year to come upon us,” Mr. Mimms advised commissioners. “If we are lucky enough to receive the grant, that will sustain us through FY 21 and into the beginning of FY22, but that’s it. So, we’re going to have to come up with an operational plan that’s financially feasible. I believe PFM has the wherewithal to help us with their purchasing consortiums, marketing programs [and] the software. That could definitely work in a hybrid approach.”

Downtown Fort Pierce resident Holly Theuns addressed the Board during the hearing, reminding its members that the idea of a third-party operator was nothing new.

“Four years ago, there was a meeting at the Sunrise Theatre, and everybody spoke up offering suggestions about how to save the theatre,” she said. “People from all over the country said there’s local theatre and a management company runs it, and it’s successful. At the time I wondered why we didn’t pursue that path, and here we are four years and how-ever-many million dollars later, having the same conversation.”

Mr. Mimms told commissioners they should know the fate of the grant by May if not sooner.

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