Ticket surcharge for theater renovation draws opposition

JACKSON — A $5 surcharge on tickets to Thalia Mara performances, starting in July, will help fund renovations to the 45-year-old city auditorium, and some find the prospect a potentially pricey pill to swallow.

Averyell Kessler of W. Kessler Ltd., which brings touring Broadway shows to Jackson, predicts a “chilling effect” on its ticket sales, which carry a baseline price of $20-$62.50.

“Adding $5 to a $20 ticket is increasing its cost by 25 percent,” she said.

She said many theaters have a $1 or $2 add-on fee; “a $5 fee is pretty high” in the business, especially in a tight economy.

“It will affect us, and it will affect everybody who uses the theater, particularly smaller shows,” such as gospel plays and comedy shows, she said. “Five dollars is a good chunk of change to add onto a $15 or an $18 ticket.”

Raising ticket prices is always a tricky issue, Mississippi Symphony Orchestra president and executive Michael Beattie said, “because there’s no way to predict what will happen.”

The symphony schedules its flagship Bravo series and some pops performances in the hall, which he concedes “desperately needs upgrade,” and the symphony supports efforts to find funding from a variety of sources.

“We feel that it’s important to try to do our part,” Beattie said. “On the face of it, it could be quite expensive.”

He’s still awaiting details on how the ticket surcharge will work to figure out how the symphony will deal with it, whether absorbing it, adding on a fee or what else the nonprofit might do to mitigate impact.

The hall will go dark for improvements starting Jan. 10, after the close of ticketed events the last week of December and use by the James Brown biopic the first week in January.

The Jackson City Council approved the surcharge on a 4-2 vote at its Nov. 19 meeting. Discussion was that the order could be amended or adjusted in the future, but time was a crucial factor for getting a contract done and moving ahead on renovations.

Non-ticketed events such as graduations and church services wouldn’t be affected. Neither would the June 14-29 USA International Ballet Competition.

Bottom line is restorations to the hall have to be paid for, said Michael Raff, the city’s deputy director for cultural services.

The hall’s rental rates are lower than that of similar regional theaters, but merely raising rental rates wouldn’t be enough for the amount needed. Current rental rates are being studied, too.

“We’re talking about putting $2.5 million into Thalia Mara Hall right away,” Raff said.

With a lease-purchase contract that’ll include a new air conditioning and heating system, interior lighting upgrades and fire safety equipment, “that’s going to come to about $2.8 million,” he said.

With an average of 68,000 in ticketed attendance yearly, the projected $5 ticket surcharge rate would bring in enough for payments on the 10-year contract, he said.

Additional improvements are on tap, too. Other legs in the three-pronged plan are $1 million in state bond authorization to address accessibility, egress issues and restrooms and private dollars raised by the nonprofit Friends of Thalia Mara Hall for new seating, carpet, paint and wallpaper.

Kelly Scrivner with Friends of Thalia Mara Hall said $1.3 million in private pledges has been raised in the campaign that’ll continue through renovations.

“It looks like we’re going to be able to do everything we wanted to do for the hall and it’s going to be ready for the International Ballet Competition,” she said, with private, state and city funding close to the effort’s $5 million goal.

Friends still would like to raise $1 million more, she said. It’s key to know how much is pledged by year’s end for a better idea of what contractors can go forward with.

Once the hall reopens, aggressive marketing efforts to book performers will go into action, Raff said.

“We don’t want a full week to go dark in that theater once we reopen in July,” further increasing revenue as well as boosting other Jackson businesses.

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