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Eau Claire arts center ending first year with surplus

Before the curtain first rose for audiences at Pablo Center at the Confluence, the new downtown Eau Claire arts center had to make up some financial ground.

“We came into this fiscal year with $255,000 in the hole we had to make up,” executive director Jason Jon Anderson said.

On top of that was another $180,000 in other start-up costs to get the $60 million building ready for showtime in September.

“Those are not small numbers to overcome,” Anderson said.

A combination of higher than anticipated patronage during its inaugural season, conservative budgeting and lean staffing is leading the Pablo Center to project a $125,000 to $150,000 surplus for its first full fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The arts center brought in $2.77 million in revenue, which more than covered its $2.62 million in expenses, according to figures Anderson shared this week with the Leader-Telegram.

In addition to the confidence of a successful first season financially, the Pablo Center also learned more about its customer base and how far people will come to see a show in Eau Claire.

Wider audience

The fact that most people who bought tickets live in the Chippewa Valley was no surprise, but those who made a longer drive showed the new arts center’s reputation extended farther than expected.

Of tickets sold during the first season, 65% were bought by people from Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn counties, based on the center’s box office data.

Remaining sales were then mostly to patrons living in the Twin Cities, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Duluth, Minn. A segment that Anderson took special note of was that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area accounted for 12% of overall ticket sales.

“We’re at the regional, semi-national level,” Anderson said.

Those guests were drawn in using a shoestring marketing approach mostly through social media after much of that part of the center’s budget had been consumed with start-up costs including building a website, creating logos and other branding. Next year there is more advertising and marketing planned in areas where ticket sales have shown there is an audience interested in going to the Pablo Center.

Drawing patrons from longer distances helps the center prove its case for getting $225,000 annually in hotel room taxes collected by the city, which are intended for attractions that encourage overnight visitors.

“We know that we’re driving room sales,” Anderson said.

Linda John, executive director of local convention and visitors bureau Visit Eau Claire, said the center is helping area hotels.

Locally founded software company Jamf hosted its annual SubZero employee conference in January at the Pablo Center.

“Room tax collections that month were up 8.1% and we attribute that growth to hosting that event during one of Eau Claire’s slowest tourism months,” John said in an email.

She’s also fielded interest from meeting planners interested in using the arts center in some way for reception space or providing entertainment for attendees.

“I expect us to continue to grow as an event venue,” Anderson said, but adding that Pablo Center will remain first and foremost an arts center.

This year’s surplus will go to the nonprofit group that was created to serve as owner of the arts center, which will use the money to pay off costs tied to the new building.

Brandon Riechers, president and CEO of Royal Credit Union, leads the ownership group’s board and said this year’s surplus will pay for the last of the bills from contractors for the building.

“The final construction costs will be paid in the next couple months,” he said.

However, the center still has some debt to pay off and yearly lease payments tied to insurance premiums, property management fees, tax preparation and audit services.

Riechers didn’t provide a dollar figure for how much debt the arts center has remaining from constructing its building. He did say that fundraising is ongoing and got a boost from the center’s gala opening and first season.

After building-related costs are paid off, the arts center’s future annual surpluses will be used to build up its reserve fund.

Filling seats

Beyond the positive financial figures, the center also showed that its audience has continued to grow.

In its first nine months, box office data showed more than 80,000 individuals bought tickets. But even more encouraging to Anderson is how many newcomers are trying out the Pablo Center.

On any given show day — not including Eau Claire theatre troupes with their well-established local fan bases — 60% of ticket buyers are first-time visitors, Anderson said.

Memberships to the center were nearly double the estimate made by the center before opening.

Before it closed, the downtown State Theatre’s membership rolls peaked at 600, Anderson said, and Pablo Center had hoped to see the same number in its first year.

Instead, more than 1,100 people have paid for one of the different tiers of memberships to the Pablo Center, which carry varying levels of perks and allow for buying tickets before they go on sale to the general public.

Shows consistently sold more seats than the 68% average the center had based its conservative budget on.

“We were in the 70th percentile the entire year,” Anderson said.

Some parts of the operation did experience struggles, he said, such as drink sales shortly after the building opened.

“We absolutely overprojected where beverages would perform at in at least the first four months of operation,” Anderson said.

The bars tweaked their selection to better meet patrons’ tastes and worked out a few operational kinks that improved beverage sales as the season went on.

One area that hasn’t been a money-maker but Anderson intends to keep around is the valet parking, which he sees as a good service to provide to customers.

Pablo is ending its year with 12 employees — two furnished through a lease from building tenant UW-Eau Claire, which began teaching multiple performing arts-related classes during its 2018-19 school year.

“That’s where we went very lean,” Anderson said of the staffing.

Summer, which is traditionally a slower time for arts centers, will give the employees some respite. But in following years, Anderson wants the Pablo Center “to build a robust summer season.”

For running events, Pablo Center has a roster of 85 part-time employees, which are a mix of those directly employed by the center and UW-Eau Claire’s usher corps.

Leading up to opening

Anderson kept the budget conservative and staffing lean to avoid ending up with a deficit. He acknowledged the pressure of having a successful first year for a prominent project that had endured some controversies leading up to its grand opening.

Local group Voters With Facts sued the city for its use of a tax increment financing district to provide some funding to the downtown Confluence Project, which includes the arts center. That case went to the state Supreme Court, which primarily decided in the city’s favor, but some issues were sent back to the county’s circuit court for a ruling.

And Anderson was the second executive director named to lead the arts center before the building’s opening. Original hire for the job Kevin Miller resigned in October 2017 after the arts center’s board learned that he had not completed degrees that were listed on his resume.

First pitched at a May 2012 news conference, the idea of a new arts center spent years of planning to prove its viability to potential donors, government officials and the general public.

That included a consultant’s report released in spring 2013, which devised a theoretical budget and slate of events for what was then envisioned as a three-theater venue.

Consulting firm VenuWorks projected that early design for a downtown Eau Claire arts center would bring in 181 different acts in its first year.

The smallest of the three theaters was cut in the design of the building, which has the 404-seat Jamf Theater and the 1,200-seat RCU Theater.

With two theaters, the Pablo Center ended up hosting 238 events during its inaugural season.

The VenuWorks report also had a smaller hypothetical budget for the arts center — about $1 million in expenses during its first full year and yielding a $100,773 surplus.

In the three years leading up to last autumn’s opening, the arts center’s planners also were crafting and revising budget projections, Anderson said.

“But you never know until you open the doors,” he said.

Afraid of the light

When we first moved out to the country, about eight miles south of Eau Claire, roughly between the sprawling metropolitan areas of Cleghorn and Brackett, there were three dusk-to-dawn high-pressure-sodium lights scattered around our property on various poles and outbuildings. Our acreage was lit up like a Wrigley Field night game and for no great reason. Security? I don’t know, maybe. I’ve always thought any burglar operating in our “neighborhood” was choosing a very poor place to execute his/her thefts — I know my neighbors and their zeal for hunting well enough to imagine that any thief would be ultimately breaking and entering into a world of hurt, if you catch my drift.

Unconcerned about safety, we had the lights taken down. This move immediately saved us about 25 bucks a month on our utility bill, which was nice, but there was another great benefit: darkness.

I love the night sky and always have. I remember a trip up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, camping with my buddy Josh Swan on an island located on Stanley Lake. The night sky up there displayed a tremendous spill of the Milky Way; blue and white with pockets of palest purple. The stars were vivid, and seemingly close. Another night I bivouacked under the stars with old amigo Nik Novak at Copper Falls State Park when a shooting star went scudding over our sleeping bags for what seemed to be three seconds. And other nights: in northern British Columbia, watching the Aurora Borealis with friends, or in Dinosaur National Monument, camping with my family.

Visitors to our property are often stunned by the night sky. We’ll build a campfire and sit around, drinking a bottle of wine (or two or three) and just rubbernecking the heavens. It is a wonderful way to unplug from phones, computers, televisions. I can’t imagine a better form of entertainment: shooting stars, the constellations, and on the rarest of occasions, the northern lights. But it’s the urban friends that I delight in most; they simply can’t believe how many stars they’ve forgotten about. They seem to cower in wonder, as if a god were looming above them, or as if heaven were suddenly within reach.

Something has changed in me since moving to the country and I can’t explain it exactly, except to say that I’ve become afraid of light, and maybe afraid of people too. Any Boy Scout will tell you that the best way to see in the darkness is to close your eyes, shut off your flashlight, and then open your eyes again. Your vision will adjust to the night, and you will be surprised by how the moon and stars can light your way. Maybe my own vision has adjusted since I moved here, and by vision, perhaps I mean “sensibility.”

Before moving home, we lived in St. Paul, very close to Central High School. I liked the neighborhood for many reasons and still do; the St. Paul Cheese Shop, the many used bookstores, grocery shopping at Kowalski’s. But I’d sacrificed aspects of how I see beauty in the world. Only sparrows ever visited my bird-feeder. “Wildlife” was restricted to squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, and rats. Even on the coldest, clearest nights, I could see but a very few stars. If I wanted to, I might have counted on them on my fingers and toes.

I didn’t care for that urban “quality-of-life” even as I understood that by many environmental measurements, I was living lighter on the planet in my little St. Paul apartment and walking to buy my groceries. But there were certainly other measurements of environmental awareness that were simply inaccessible to me. And one, was the wonder of seeing the stars.

Nowadays I think I am not just afraid of light, but also afraid of what accompanies light. I don’t fear nocturnal creatures, but I do fear headlights racing down a nearby rural road. I don’t fear the dark edges of a field or forest, but I do fear a new and hideous parking lot of RVs draped in bold lighting. When my more urban-dwelling friends ask if I’m afraid of the darkness, I feel like asking them if they’re afraid of all the light in their cities — the light that is killing the wonder of the stars and moon, the light that is drying the Milky Way, and blocking the glory of the Aurora Borealis. One of my favorite things is sitting on my back porch in the complete darkness, with a cigar, and listening to the singing of the coyotes and the conversations of owls.

I wonder how many people reading this column have an unnecessary light somewhere on their residential or commercial property, light spilling into darkness, light that is never, by the way, free. I readily admit that lighting can prevent crime, and I don’t promote a Dark Skies agenda where it would cause harm. But I do promote thoughtfulness, and wonder, and I would like to live in a world where a kid growing up in downtown Eau Claire can see most of the same stars that a kid growing up in Tilden might.

Next Saturday: B.J. Hollars suggests stopping to smell the succulents.

Trump calls off Iran strikes, citing likely deaths

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday the U.S. was “cocked and loaded” to retaliate against Iran for downing an unmanned American surveillance drone but he canceled the strikes minutes before they were to be launched after being told 150 people could die.

Trump’s tweeted statement raised important questions, including why he learned about possible deaths only at the last minute.

His stance was the latest example of the president showing some reluctance to escalate tensions with Iran into open military conflict. He did not rule out a future strike but said in a TV interview that the likelihood of casualties from the Thursday night plan to attack three sites in Iran did not seem like the correct response to shooting down an unmanned drone earlier in the day in the Strait of Hormuz.

“I didn’t think it was proportionate,” he said in an interview with NBC News’ Meet the Press.

The aborted attack was the closest the U.S. has come to a direct military strike on Iran in the year since the administration pulled out of the 2015 international agreement intended to curb the Iranian nuclear program and launched a campaign of increasing economic pressure against the Islamic Republic.

Trump told NBC News that he never gave a final order to launch the strikes — planes were not yet in the air but would have been “pretty soon.”

He said military officials came to him about 30 minutes before the strikes were to be launched and asked him for his final approval. Before signing off, he said he asked how many Iranians would be killed and was told approximately 150.

“I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane — whatever you want to call it — and here we are sitting with 150 dead people.’ That would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was proportionate.”

In Iran, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, told reporters on Friday that a U.S. spy plane with around 35 crew members was flying close to the unmanned U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk that was shot down, but that Iran chose not to target the manned aircraft. He said Iran warned the drone several times before downing it with a missile.

Late Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration barred American-registered aircraft from flying over parts of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and several major airlines from around the world on Friday began rerouting their flights , including British Airways, Australia’s Qantas, Germany’s Lufthansa and the Dutch carrier KLM.

In his lengthy, morning tweet, Trump defended his stance on Iran amid criticism from Democrats who accuse him of having no strategy. He said he pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which gave Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for pledges to rein in its nuclear program, because the agreement only temporarily blocked Iran from having nuclear weapons. Trump said the nuclear deal also did not stem Iran’s support of militant groups or restrain its ballistic missile program.

He said his exit from the deal and the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran has crippled its economy.

“I am in no hurry,” he said. “Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”

The overnight events, however, were a stark reminder of the serious risk of military conflict between U.S. and Iranian forces as the Trump administration combines its “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions with a buildup of American troops in the region. As tensions have mounted in recent weeks, there have been growing fears that either side could make a dire miscalculation leading to war.

“We are in an extremely dangerous and sensitive situation with Iran,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday. “We must calibrate a response that de-escalates and advances American interests, and we must be clear as to what those interests are.”

The Trump administration has been putting increasing economic pressure on Iran for more than a year. It reinstated punishing sanctions following Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of an international agreement intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from earlier sanctions.

Citing Iranian threats, the U.S. recently sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there. All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the U.S. and Iran into an open conflict 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.

The downing of the U.S. drone — a huge, unmanned aircraft — over the Strait of Hormuz prompted accusations from the U.S. and Iran about who was the aggressor. Iran insisted the drone violated Iranian airspace; Washington said it had been flying over international waters.

The dispute has raised fears that an open conflict between the U.S. and Iran is on the horizon. Some lawmakers insisted the White House must consult with Congress before taking any actions.

Pelosi said no specific options for a U.S. response were presented at Thursday’s meeting between top national security officials and congressional leaders at the White House.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The administration is engaged in what I would call measured responses.” And late Thursday, House Republicans on the Foreign Affairs, intelligence and Armed Services committees issued a statement using the same word, saying, “There must be a measured response to these actions.”

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said the U.S. must de-escalate the situation.

“I don’t think that people should be jumping down the president’s throat for wanting to think this through and make sure that neither side miscalculates and we don’t inadvertently end up in a war with Iran,” he said. “It is also very important for the administration to understand ... that there is no congressional authorization to go to war with Iran.”