Curtain comes down on Thalia Mara temporarily as refurbishing gets under way

by Ted Carter

Published: January 17,2014

Tags: Business, education, Mississippi, theatre

The restoration of Jackson’s aging Thalia Mara Hall began in earnest Monday when workers began tearing out its more than 2,300 seats.

The restoration of Jackson’s aging Thalia Mara Hall began in earnest Monday when workers began tearing out its more than 2,300 seats.

The restoration of Jackson’s aging Thalia Mara Hall began in earnest Monday when workers began tearing out its more than 2,300 seats.

The nearly half-century-old entertainment hall has shut down as workers scramble to replace the seating, lighting, heating and air conditioning system and complete a host of other restoration chores. They must get the work done in time to present a refurbished hall as host of the June 2014 USA International Ballet’s worldwide competition.

Jackson hosts the international competition every four years. The several-day event four years ago put an estimated $10 million into the local economy, officials say.

Getting the improvements done on time is not the only cause for scrambling. This phase of the restoration is going to run as much $6 million and a sizable chunk of that must be raised privately through the Friends of Thalia Mara, an organization of patrons and stakeholders that so far has gained pledges of $1.3 million.

The pace of fund-raising will pick up significantly in the next few months as the Friends organization seeks to ensure adequate cash flow for the cosmetic upgrades it has taken responsibly for covering, said Entergy’s Kelly Scrivener, who serves as administrator for Friends of Thalia Mara.

While the group will be making its own contacts, organizers are hoping that seeing the restoration actually under way will prompt supporters to come forward on their own. “Hopefully, we’ll be hearing from them,” Scrivener said.

A website detailing the fund-raising and the improvements it will cover at Thalia Mara is at Friendsoftmh.com.

The restoration effort shaved some significant preliminary costs through the donation of services from Jackson architectural and engineering firm Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons, or CDFL. “They drew up the plans for the interior,” Scrivener said.

“This has been a really great public-private partnership,” she said. “The city (of Jackson) has been an absolute fantastic partner.”

While the current target for fund-raising is $6 million, of which the state is contributing $1 million and the city of Jackson $2.8 million, the hall will need an additional $9 million in improvements over the next decade or so, said Michael Raff, Jackson’s deputy director of cultural services.

“We’re hoping the Friends of Thalia Mara will come up with $1.5 million to $2 million,” Raff said, referring to this initial phase.

This first phase of improvements includes a new HVAC system, fire-safety upgrades, sound system enhancements, new chairs, interior face lifts and changes to make the performance center more assessable to the handicapped.

The city of Jackson has put close to $4 million into repairs and equipment at thalia Mara in recent years, including a new roof and lighting.

In this round of improvements, the city intends to recoup its $2.8 million investment through a $5 charge on each ticket sold for Thalia Mara events. Call it a “restoration charge,” Raff insisted. “It’s important to be positive.”

Expect the charge to be in place at least 10 years but likely longer, considering the additional fix-ups the 45-year-old building needs, he added.

Raff said he came up with the $5 figure by tabulating the average attendance for events at Thalia Mara the past five years and determining from there what would be needed to generate the $2.8 million to repay the city, plus interest.

The $5 calculation also includes around $40,000 in additional upfront money to cover the costs of leasing-to-own the HVAC system, the lighting and other new fixtures, Raff said.

The result will be $340,000 annually to cover the lease-to-own costs, he said.

“I took the total number of tickets sold and multiplied by five to get the $340,000.”

Raff conceded the “restoration” fee could be a burden on show-goers as well as show promoters who rely on a strong turnout to make their money. The fee came as the lone option to ensure the city is repaid, he said.

“Either we did something like this or we close the hall in two years. The situation is that bad.”

Longtime Jackson music promoter Arden Barnett said he fears the extra charge will dissuade some performers he customarily books from doing dates at Thalia Mara. And the repercussions likely will go beyond acts he books, he added.

“The bands will have a problem with this. Unfortunately, it is not just the rock shows. I think is going to have a drastic effect on any and everything in there,” he said, and predicted the smaller arts organizations will be especially vulnerable to diminished turnouts.

Barnett, founder of promotional music promotional company ardenland, said now that the surcharge is in place, he expects it’s “not going to be something they give up,” and he can only hope city officials decide to lower the charge.

Friends of thalia Mara’s Scrivener said that while her stakeholder organization had no part in enacting the surcharge, the money for the city’s share of the improvements had to come from somewhere. “I think you cannot deny these upgrades had to be made and they had to be paid for,” she said.

 

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