Commentary

Wilson: New Carolina Theatre contact a win-win for taxpayers

CorrespondentApril 11, 2014 

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A new, multi-year operating contract for the historic Carolina Theatre, gem of Durham's downtown, could be on the City Council's April 21 agenda for yea or nay.

This one deserves a resounding affirmative vote from every council member.

For starters, the new contract holds Carolina Theatre of Durham Inc., the nonprofit that operates the theater, to performance-based benchmarks twice a year. Now that’s a sea change in the way things have been done.

But there's more good news: Although the city can still raise its annual payment of $614,520 a year to the nonprofit if necessary, it would gain the council's blessing to reduce – yes, actually reduce a city subsidy – in fat times.

Bring out the funeral-parlor fans and a mint julep, fellow taxpayers. This isn't the vapors – it's real.

Under the old contract, Carolina Theatre Inc. enjoyed a 3 percent annual increase in the city subsidy no matter what, the what being a string of operating deficits.

Now, the city can adjust the subsidy up or down 2.5 percent to 3 percent, depending on the financial circumstances of both the city and the theatre.

Fortunately, the theater posted in the black for 2012-13 and, according to chief executive officer Bob Nocek, expects to do even better in 2014.

City Manager Tom Bonfield anointed the proposed contract as “prudent and good” for the city. That's a nice way of saying the old contract was neither.

The new contract is the product of more than a year of negotiations between Bonfield and Noeck. In fact, Carolina Theatre Inc. operated the facility on a one-year contract extension while the new terms were being worked out.

In connection with restructuring the contract, Noeck and his staff decided to try a different means of attracting theater-goers. The Carolina Theatre can't compete with the Durham Performing Arts Center for Broadway shows, but it can carve a niche for itself with smaller, more intimate performances.

As Noeck says, few performers booked for the Carolina have a following large enough to fill the 1,016-seat auditorium. So, Noeck and his team are using a common-sense approach by creating smaller venues within the auditorium, up to 500 seats.

This idea rests on a principle known to the Greeks: It’s better to have more people in a small space than few people in a big one. The intimate atmosphere energizes performers and audience alike.

It’s this kind of creative thinking that augurs well for the Carolina, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece dating from the era of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Roaring Twenties.

The city was uncomfortably close to losing the Carolina in the 1970s, when Durham was searching for a way – virtually any way – to prevent downtown from imploding.

A goal-oriented powerhouse named Connie Moses formed a nonprofit corporation with her husband, Duke medical educator Montrose Moses, and set out to save the Carolina. They and volunteers who shared their vision of a restored Carolina pulled it off, and the theater became a linchpin of downtown revival.

Connie Moses is gone now, well before what should have been her allotted time, and an elegant ballroom at the Carolina now bears her name.

The new operating agreement bids fair to perpetuate Connie and Montrose Moses' legacy at the Carolina. They deserve the gratitude of all Durham, just as much as Tom Bonfield and Bob Noeck do for reaching their win-win agreement.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

 

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