City sells Shubert Theater to local non-profit

Following a 12-year stint in the theater industry, New Haven has officially taken its last bow in show business.

In a unanimous vote during a public hearing late last Thursday night, the Board of Aldermen struck a deal to transfer the ownership of the Shubert Theater from the city to the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA), a nonprofit arts and theater management organization, for a price tag of $1.

The city government first took full ownership of the theater 12 years ago, as part of an effort to revitalize one of New Haven’s most historic cultural landmarks. But, due to looming renovation costs, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and the city’s Economic Development Administration concluded that it would be best for the city’s financial health to transfer ownership of the century-old theater.

Under the ratified land disposition agreement, the city will pay CAPA a total of $4.5 million over 10 years, including $2.5 million in capital repairs and $2 million in operating support for the theater venue. During that time frame, the city will gradually reduce its annual operating subsidies to the theater, which cost New Haven $250,000 this past year alone, according to the 2012–’13 municipal budget.

Furthermore, the agreement requires the city’s approval if CAPA were to ever to sell the building, and the building must continue to serve as a theater, hosting shows for at least 150 nights each year. If CAPA violates any of the requirements of the deal or loses the property, the city is entitled to re-take ownership of the building.

Ward 9 Alderwoman Jessica Holmes underscored that, as a result of the ownership transfer, the CAPA can now more easily raise funds from foundations and the private sector to make the much-needed physical renovations. Otherwise, she said, all the funds would have to come directly from the city budget.

“CAPA would like to build an endowment for the theater, and that will be easier if the Shubert is independently owned,” Holmes said. “Hopefully they will be able to appeal to donors and develop a [funding] base to make the theater more self sustaining.”

According to the theater’s executive director John Fisher, the Shubert has not undergone a major renovation in 30 years and must use $7–$8 million in repairs to bring the venue up to current federal safety codes.

Although the city has contributed approximately $300,000 annually to keep the theater running, the Shubert has not been able to afford these much-needed renovations. In addition to repairing the theater, CAPA administrators have said they intend to build a second performance area, which would accommodate a 100–200-person audience and offer an additional venue for rehearsals, performances, functions, and conferences.

With the city no longer responsible for capital improvements, Holmes said this deal provides New Haven with an exit strategy, adding that the city should not be involved in the theater business in the long term. Several aldermen expressed confidence that CAPA will manage the theater’s business operation well, as they have directed the venue’s day-to-day operations since 2001.

Thanks to the deal, the city no longer holds the burden of operating the business, but can still reap the economic benefits the Shubert provides. According to Fisher, the Shubert brings an estimated $20 million into the city’s economy each year in the form of restaurant meals and parking fees — attracting people to the downtown area and spurring more jobs for the Elm City.

Ward 22 Alderwoman Jeanette Morrison said that the ownership transfer is a “win-win for everyone”, as it allows the city to save money, CAPA to “do what they love” and the city’s many performers — including many Yale students — to continue using the space.

“The Shubert will continue to bring revenues into our community — our restaurants and our different hotels,” Morrison said. “We will be able to reap the benefits of the hundreds of thousands, along with the fact that we, as residents, can continue to enjoy a great play in the heart of downtown.”

Holmes believes that transferring the ownership to CAPA will also enable the Shubert to expand their education and training programs for New Haven public school students interested in the arts, including an ongoing relationship with the nearby Co-Op High School.

The Shubert opened in New Haven in 1914, acting as a try-out theater for many popular shows that would reach Broadway. Economic hardships forced the theater to shut down in 1976, but it was reopened in 1983 as the centerpiece of a revived downtown entertainment district.

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