Washington approves funding for theater group eyeing former Brigham’s Playhouse, but with some hesitation

ST. GEORGE — While the Washington City Council approved nearly $170,000 RAP tax dollars to various arts groups Wednesday night, it wasn’t done without a healthy amount of debate concerning just how much the city should invest in certain ventures due to past experience.

Terry and Sarah DeMille of the Children’s Musical Theater make the case for their application for RAP tax funding to the Washington City Council, Washington City, Utah, Jan. 22, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Applying for the largest amount of funding at $185,000 was the Children’s Musical Theater, represented by president Terry DeMille and his wife, Sarah. The theater company has held classes and productions at the Electric Theater in St. George. However, due to a need to expand, the theater company is looking to lease the building Brigham’s Playhouse resided in until recently.

The funds for which the Children’s Musical Theater applied would go toward the first year’s rent, the purchase of theater-related equipment from Brigham’s Playhouse, the renovation of the building’s basement and other needs, Terry DeMille told the City Council.

There was a sense of haste put on the pending approval of the RAP tax funding for the children’s theater, as the group has just recently learned about the availability of the building, and they wanted to be able to sign a multiyear lease right away. This would allow them to get work started on renovating parts of the building before their programs start again in August.

Sarah DeMille told the council that they didn’t want to sign a lease if they didn’t have the money to put toward it.

However, Councilman Daniel Cluff said he had concerns, citing the council’s previous use of RAP tax funds for Brigham’s Playhouse to the amount of $210,000.

“As it stands, this is a significant investment part two,” he said.

Council Daniel Cluff questions if Washington City should allot $185,000 to the Children’s Musical Theater in RAP tax funding, Washington City, Utah, Jan. 22, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Even though the Children’s Musical Theater is a different group with a different business model, Cluff said he was hesitant to invest in another theater group at the same location. He referred to it as “patching” the issue.

Issues in the past with Brigham’s Playhouse included the tendency by the organization to repeatedly approach the City Council for RAP tax use instead of becoming self-sufficient as the council hoped it would, as well as funding a group that hadn’t secured its nonprofit status – a requirement for RAP tax funding consideration. The theater was also facing rising facility costs it was unable to keep up with.

“I found this is something we’ve spent years on and found that it fell apart,” Cluff said. “It may take more conversation to truly bring something in that can be more sustainable. … I am not assured that we have what we need to make something like this function within our community.”

Councilman Craig Coats, one of the council’s newest members, was also hesitant to approve such a large amount of funding.

“This is too much too fast,” Coats said.

Offering a counter view was Councilman Kurt Ivie, who said the city needs to be a more viable partner with the fine arts community.

“When you talk about the community, we need to be a partner in that as well,” Ivie said. “We want to protect the funds of the citizens, that’s the most important job we have as council member. But we also recognize that without being a fair partner, that these things may not ever come to fruition.”

Brigham’s Playhouse theater, Washington City, Utah, July 10, 2019 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Last year the City Council stated that the city had neglected supporting the arts community in the past. To this end, the council passed an ordinance in October committing up to 35% of its annual RAP tax allocation – around $400,000-plus according to City Manager Roger Carter – to set aside for the future construction of a cultural arts facility.

The remark was made Wednesday night that it wouldn’t do for the city to eventually have a cultural arts center and yet not have any local arts groups within the city to use it.

The DeMilles said their business plan for the Children’s Musical Theater allowed them to become self-sufficient within one year’s time and that this would be the only time they’d apply for RAP tax funding.

“We believe we will be fully self-sufficient by 2021,” Sarah DeMille said.

The programs, which start in August, will provide the income the group needs, as will additional children they’ll be able to enroll into theater classes thanks to not having the restrictions on time and space they encounter in the Electric Theater.

One of Coats’ questions on applying RAP tax funding was as to the benefit to Washington City, to which Sarah Demille responded that the basement space in the former Brigham’s Playhouse building will be renovated in a way that will allow dance studios to use and rent it.

Terry DeMille added that parents come from across the county to drop their kids off to three-hour classes. He said he doubted those parents living out of town would drive back home after dropping their children off and that it is likely they would spend time in Washington City shopping as well.

Eventually, Ivie proposed a compromise for the minimum amount the Children’s Musical Theater needed get going in Washington City, which took the requested amount down to $102,000. This gave them $30,000 up front and $6,000 a month for a year for rent.

Children from the Children’s Musical Theater St. George rehearse in the dance room at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Jill Rae, St. George News

When asked if that would help, the DeMilles replied it would. In order to make up the difference, Terry DeMille said they would seek additional funding from sponsors as well as apply to Washington County for RAP tax funding in the future.

Before a vote was made, Councilman Kress Staheli said he wanted conditions added, such as requesting that “Washington City” be incorporated into the name of the theater group, that they stay in Washington City and have a viable business plan.

The conditions were added and a vote was taken. Council members Staheli, Ivie and Doug Ward voted in favor of granting the funding while Coats and Cluff opposed it.

Other RAP tax allocations included:

  • A unanimous vote granting $15,000 toward the Southern Utah Arts Guild for the promotion of the visual arts in Washington City.
    A 3-2 vote granting $25,000 toward the Tuacahn Center for the Arts going toward a new building being constructed on the theater’s campus. Staheli, Ivie and Coats voted in favor of the funding while Cluff and Ward opposed it.
  • A unanimous vote allocating $25,000 toward programming at the Washington City Community Center.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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