Saturday, May 9, 2009

Thoroughbred Theater raising money to stay afloat

By Ashley Trosper and Sarah Livesay
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunicatons

The history of the Thoroughbred Theater is etched in the heart of the Midway community, but its future is unsure.

Though it faces financial uncertainty and the possibility of new ownership, John and Jim McDaniel, the co-managers and former owners, say the theater has some serious staying power and the possibilities for the future are promising.

“There’s a collective conscientiousness in this town” to support the arts, Jim McDaniel said. “Nothing is more important to me than the arts.”

Supporters of the theater have created a non-profit organization to preserve it, give the community a greater sense of ownership, and perhaps purchase it from owner Tony Moreno.

The non-profit's board has already been hard at work with the McDaniels, creating the Cornerstone Fund. Through April, 33 people had pledged $25 per month for six months to the Thoroughbred Theater, according to Jim McDaniel — all through e-mail solicitation. “It says a lot about the community support,” he said.

“I'm not surprised to see Midway folks jump on board the Cornerstone Fund,” said Bob Rouse, a menre of the board. “It's a way to provide much-needed funds to a cool hometown venue. These people are saying to Thoroughbred Theater, ‘We want you here with us.’”

The theater has undergone a facelift under Moreno’s ownership. He restored the theater with the “Thoroughbred” theme, adding green barn doors from Man O’ War Farm and a stairway from Churchill Downs leading up to the stage.

The McDaniels returned as managers of the theater in 2007. Jim McDaniel said their priority was to bring the community into the theater life. They added cinema, live music, stage productions and University of Kentucky basketball games on the big screen.

Moreno said he originally intended to turn the property into retail space, but after learning about the history of the theater, his intentions shifted into creating a space that “when you walk in, you felt like you were in the heart of horse country.”

Records show that Moreno bought the property at 127 E. Main St. from ASG Community Development LLC for $125,000 in October 2003. He sold some connecting property to Robert and Sarah Vandegrift for $320,000 in November 2008. The Vandegrifts used part of the property to create Quirk Café.

John McDaniel said Moreno has made tremendous renovations to all of the adjoining properties, including the theater. The sale of the building to the Vandegrifts required installation of handicapped-accessible bathrooms, which McDaniel said was the reason for the theater's closure this winter.

The theater reopened with a fundraiser March 21, featuring an original comedy-mystery theatre production by the Bluegrass Mystery Theater.

The McDaniels and Moreno said it would be ideal for the non-profit to buy the theater. Moreno said he would sell it for market value, noting that he has invested significant time and money for the renovations.

“He has made generous concessions that reflected his will that the theater continues,” Jim McDaniel said. These concessions include allowing the managers three months to pay a deposit of $1,200 on the theater instead of one, according to Jim McDaniel.

Moreno said the lease payment of $1,200 a month has not been easy on the theater, and he hopes the non-profit will relieve some of the financial stress on the McDaniels. “I’m trying to make it easy,” he said.

Those involved with the theater have brainstormed options to make the purchase possible. Moreno said he’s looked into loan-guarantee programs for the McDaniels and has even approached the City of Midway to purchase the property for the community. On April 29, Moreno met with Mayor Tom Bozarth to discuss the option.

“He was noncommittal, but he’s looking at the options,” Moreno said. “It would be a great, great deal. My job as a developer is to do a development that’s in line with the community’s interest. But, we have to make a profit.”

Bozarth said that while he believes the theater is good for the city, it would ultimately be a city council decision. “With the economy, I don’t think it’s the right time for the city to be buying up property,” he said.

The non-profit’s board is forming committees, setting up fundraising and helping monitor the budget, according to the McDaniels.

“Everybody is feeling out their role,” John McDaniel said. “Each one has an area of expertise. We’ve established a development committee and program committee.” The board includes President Diana Ratliff, Vice President Mary Thoresen, Secretary Bob Rouse, Liz Trontz, Chris Stafford, Lauren Hill, Blake Jones, Cindy Grisolia and Sue Roberts.

Rouse said he’s thrilled to be on the board. “I joined the board because I’m a Midway boy through and through, and this theater presents a unique pathway for bringing Midway people together to enjoy creativity,” he said.

According to John McDaniel, the theater is now doing two to three performances a week on average. He said he hopes to have several different events every week including musical performances, comedians and plays. “We found out how much the community enjoyed it,” he said. “In reality, we’ll do anything to keep this thing going.”

Moreno agreed, saying, “There’s a ton of community interest to do it.”

An application for the theater become a non-profit corporation was filed in mid-January, according to the McDaniels. Jim McDaniel said it will be extremely beneficial to the theater because donations will be tax deductible.

“We’re able to attract sources of money like private foundations, corporations and individuals who believe in what we’re doing,” he said. The brothers are working on reaching non-profit status at the federal level as a non-profit organization under Chapter 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

While the non-profit status will be a life-preserver, Jim McDaniel said it is his brother who is the backbone of the theater. “His average work week is about 90 hours,” he said. “He pours his whole life and life’s blood into this. He’s tireless. Whatever it takes, he will do it to keep this place up and running.”

While John McDaniel is a tireless worker, Jim McDaniel has a significant amount of experience in non-profit management. “It’s been my entire professional career,” Jim said. “I know it like the back of my hand.”

The next fundraiser for the Thoroughbred Theater will be The Helping Hand Fund. According to a letter from the board, the Helping Hand Fund and the Cornerstone Fund were created “to infuse needed revenue for the non-profit Thoroughbred Theater to begin expanding program services beyond our entertainment schedule.”

The McDaniels want the theater to remain a significant piece of history in the Midway community. “It’s not about the number of people filling the chairs, it’s about experiences,” Jim said.

“If Midway truly embraces this theater,” Rouse said, “we can build something extraordinary here.”

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