Firehouse ready for showtime

Hitting a high note Firehouse Center enters new stage - 'gleam and dream'

By Sonya Vartabedian, Staff Writer

NEWBURYPORT - For many years, the Firehouse Arts Center's story has read like the best-scripted tragedy - a former fire station turned community cultural center backed by a passionate supporting cast, yet struggling to survive.

There have been plenty of show-stopping moments in the Firehouse's 15-year history to be sure. But they have often been overshadowed by recurring financial crises that have plagued the nonprofit theater through much of its run.

That script, however, is starting to be rewritten.

The Firehouse has a new executive director on board, Gregory Smith, who's versed in the arts and management. And for the first time in many years, the people working behind the scenes are optimistic - even confident - that the nonprofit arts center is poised to assume the starring role it was meant to fill in the heart of downtown Newburyport.

"For several years now, it has been a difficult road," said Matt Bowen, the new president of the Society for the Development of Arts and Humanities, the volunteer board that oversees operation of the Firehouse.

"We've weathered the place through extremely difficult situations, one after another after another. For us to stand here and be in a strong financial position, even thriving, is a testament to everyone who has been involved . ...We're in much better shape than we've ever been. It's very refreshing."

While the Firehouse turned a profit, barely, in 2005 - inching into the black by just $1,400 in 2005, officials say that's just part of the story.

The fact it did so while settling most all of its outstanding debt amassed in recent years - bills totalling tens of thousands of dollars owed to the city for water and sewer fees, the electric company, performing artists and other vendors - is the real cause for celebration, said board treasurer Peter Kelly.

Midway through 2006, the Firehouse's finances are running about $14,000 ahead of what is essentially a break-even budget, Kelly said. Monthly bills are consistently being paid on time, he said, and what minimal debt remains is on target to be paid off, as negotiated, in the next four to six months.

"Although I'm traditionally the purveyor of doom and gloom," Kelly told the board at its recent annual meeting, "I now want to be the new purveyor of gleam and dream."

Kelly said several factors can be credited with the turn-around, beginning with the arrival of Not Your Average Joe's into the Firehouse's prime waterfront restaurant rental space two years ago.

Not Your Average Joe's came onto the scene following a lengthy and costly eviction battle with the former restaurant, Ciro's, which encountered its own financial problems. After Ciro's was evicted, the restaurant space sat empty for more than a year as the board searched for a replacement - costing it thousands of dollars in rental revenues.

In contrast, Not Your Average Joe's, Kelly said, has been a supporting player from the start.

"They're not just tenants. They are a really great partner in making the Firehouse a viable entity," Kelly said. "They have lived up to every commitment they made, and then some."

But the rent from the restaurant accounts for only 20 to 25 percent of the Firehouse's revenues, Kelly said. The majority of the center's income comes from box office receipts, membership fees, contributions and grants.

So as the Firehouse board worked diligently in cutting costs the last two years, closing the box office during slow times, ceasing purchases it couldn't cover and tightening its belt elsewhere, Kelly said, it also put equal energy into pursuing grants and donations as well as aggressively building its membership and gaining community support.

"We dug in to make sure this cherished place on the waterfront continues," Kelly said. "It's involved a lot of focus, control and a lot of good people stepping up and saying, 'We want to make it work.'"

While the finances have consumed much of the board's attention in the last year, Bowen credits the Firehouse staff with continuing to attract a diverse array of concerts, theater and other arts events necessary to retain its audience base.

"If we only focused on the financial aspect of this, we would still be out of business," Bowen said. "We have to look at this as selling a product, and we have to make that product well and constantly improve what we do. Finances are just one slice of it."

Bowen expects things will only improve under the new management of Smith. While past executive directors have all had their individual strengths, he said, Smith brings dual expertise in both arts and business to the post.

Smith, who was hired in May, is currently working on a new season of programming that will extend from September through June 2007 and appeal to a variety of ages and interests.

"It's hitting that right balance of the right programs at the right times and understanding what the North Shore would like to see at the Firehouse," Bowen said. "The average person who goes home at night has a lot of opportunities for entertainment. It's the onus of the Firehouse to stake our claim on those people's minds. It's up to us to make it a place people want to go to."

Both Bowen and Kelly said the hard work cannot stop here. The economics of all nonprofit groups, like the Firehouse, they said, are tenuous at best. Their main hope is for the center to continue striving to be a self-sustaining operation that lives up to its mission of advancing the arts and humanities of greater Newburyport.

"I believe if the Firehouse wasn't here, it would be sorely missed," Bowen said. "Everyone wants Newburyport to be a thriving, diverse cultural base, and the Firehouse is a very big part of it."

A charter member of the Firehouse board, Kelly said he offered to step in as treasurer two years ago to fulfill a promise he made back in 1991 to bring a cultural base to the community.

"We're truly on the cusp," he said. "I see points of achievement in our future that we haven't had before.

"Shame on the people now and in perpetuity who don't strive to keep it stable. ... It's a trust we hold with the community. We need to constantly protect the integrity of this organization. It belongs to the community."

Firehouse by the numbers

1991: Year it opened.
195: Number of seats in the Firehouse theater.
$1: Annual fee operators pay city to lease the Firehouse.
$500,000: Operating budget for 2005.
$1,414: Net income for 2005.
$187,556: Ticket sales in 2005.
14,800: Number of tickets sold in 2005.
20,000: Number of patrons annually.
150: Number of volunteers.


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)
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