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JPAC marks 10 years as cultural hub in Janesville

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Jim Leute
September 4, 2014

JANESVILLE—Tony Bennett is the wrong answer when asked which production opened the Janesville Performing Arts Center in September 2004.

The correct answer is “Janesville in Stages,” a production that showcased local arts groups that officially opened the $4.3 million center—and outdrew Bennett—one night earlier.

Ten years later, the 88-year-old Bennett is still touring—he's playing Royal Festival Hall in London tonight—and Janesville is still moving through stages.

For the last decade, however, the community's cultural stage has been anchored at JPAC, an idea born in the late 1990s as a centralized home for the arts in Janesville.

Since its opening, the center has welcomed tens of thousands of people to events that ranged from creative movement classes for 2-year-olds to community theater productions to concerts by Richard Marx, Gaelic Storm and the BoDeans.

It also has united a local arts community that had no place to call home.

“What we see today is not too far from our original mission, and that was to create a home for all the local arts groups, rather than a church basement here, a warehouse there,” said Jane Blain Gilbertson, who along with her husband, Mick, donated $100,000 to the $2.3 million private fundraising campaign that helped turn a dream into reality at the former Marshall Middle School on South Main Street.

When it opened, the 637-seat JPAC was home for 14 user groups, many of which still are based there.

The concept had to overcome financial hurdles.

Stone House Development acquired the former school in 1997. Two years later, JPAC signed a 30-year lease for the auditorium and music wing.

The rent was only $1 a year, but renovation estimates started at $2 million and eventually grew to nearly $3 million.

The fundraising campaign spawned drama.

An anonymous donor stepped forward in April 2003 with an offer of $1 million.

The offer, however, was contingent on a match from city government. That triggered complaints that local taxpayers shouldn't contribute to a project some believed would primarily benefit the city's upper classes.

“There were certainly some vocal critics,” recalled Blain Gilbertson, who co-chaired the fundraising campaign with Harvey Turner, who along with his wife, Ginny, also donated $100,000 to the project.

The Janesville City Council eventually agreed to match the anonymous donor with $1 million.

The project's budget was upped to $4 million to include balcony and parking lot renovations, ground was broken in November 2003, and the center opened less than a year later.

“It's been really good for the community,” said Blain Gilbertson, president, chief executive officer and sole owner the 35 Blain's Farm & Fleet stores and Blain Supply, the company that supports them.

“Mick and I wanted it for our community, for our kids and for our associates. We want people to have options, and JPAC makes our community so much more healthy.”

MORE THAN JUST SHOWS

JPAC has battled a branding misconception, said Elizabeth Horvath, JPAC's executive director.

The organization has an independent relationship with the 11 groups that now use its venue.

Horvath said most people don't differentiate between user groups and instead view their events as JPAC events.

Therefore, a poor show by one group is perceived as a poor show by JPAC, she said.

Conversely, a great show by another group is perceived as a great JPAC show, which unfairly sets high expectations for all other user groups.

“The bottom line is that people don't necessarily separate the venue from the performances,” Horvath said. “Regardless of one show or experience, we want people to keep returning to JPAC to experience all that it has to offer from a varied group of users, all of which have their own identities and do different things.”

REACHING OUT

JPAC recently stepped up its outreach efforts to enhance the center's stature as a cultural hub.

It launched programs for kids ages 2 to 14 and hired a teacher to work with seniors, who ultimately staged their own production at JPAC.

The center partners with nonprofit efforts such as Docs Who Rock and Dancing With The Stars. It works with local schools to get kids involved in the arts and continues to host matinee field trips at reduced costs, Horvath said.

That outreach is important, said Kerry Swanson, JPAC's president.

“Not only is JPAC a great center that pulls people in, but we are starting to reach out to the community with a wide range of programming that helps solidify the idea that this is the kind of community people want to live in,” she said. “The idea is to foster a creative community.”

Swanson first learned about JPAC when she moved to town to become president of St. Mary's Janesville Hospital.

Her daughter had done some community theater in Ohio, and after Swanson saw an ad for SpotLight on Kids, the daughter hooked up for several productions.

“That was an opportunity for her to integrate,” Swanson said.

She said her hospital highlights JPAC when it recruits employees to Janesville.

“JPAC is a tremendous asset for community, very impactful," she said.

RING THE REGISTER

JPAC is an expensive proposition, a situation made more delicate by varied expectations from its user groups.

User groups routinely want additional services, but the revenue they provide JPAC covers only about 35 percent of the center's operating costs.

Most user groups don't have endowments that sustain them, and some teeter one bad production away from financial disaster, Horvath said.

That's why it's important for JPAC to keep its own head above water, she said.

Past and former board members say JPAC was never intended to be a moneymaker.

Other than the initial infrastructure help from the city, JPAC does not receive any city, county or state funding.

Expenses center on staff salaries and the costs of running a business: utilities, insurance, advertising, supplies, repairs and cleaning.

Since 2005, JPAC has run an annual deficit that has ranged from about $12,000 to $122,000.

But when depreciation is factored out, the organization has had a positive cash flow five out of the nine years, including the last two.

Helping the financial situation is a significant fund balance that took root in 2004.  A good chunk of that, however, is tied up in building and equipment assets in the facility.

JPAC's board routinely targets break-even operating budgets that provide the community with a wide variety of events at affordable costs for both patrons and user groups.

In some cases, expensive tickets are sold to major fundraising events to subsidize lower-cost of tickets for other events, Horvath said.

For example, tickets for the 2011 Richard Marx concert on a Saturday night cost $250 or $35. All seats for a matinee performance the next day were $10.

“We need to be self-sustaining and bring in our own presenting groups in a way to control our own destiny so we continue to be here for everyone else,” Blain Gilbertson said. “There's sometimes a concern that we're competing with our user groups, but that's not the idea at all.”

THE FUTURE

In January 2013, the JPAC board worked with its user groups to develop a strategy for the next few years.

The consensus was that JPAC:

-- Is a hub for creative activities and development of creative talent.

-- Provides synergy and identity for local arts groups.

-- Provides opportunities for residents to stay in town for cultural activities.

-- Is an important part of downtown redevelopment.

-- Provides activities that make Janesville an attractive place to live for current and prospective residents.

Given that, challenges remain, Horvath said.

Beyond the branding and financial issues, JPAC struggles with unused capacity.

Typically, only four or five shows sell out each year. That affects the user groups that are trying to cover production costs, including JPAC rental fees.

“We're competing for people's time and money,” Horvath said. “There are so many options today.

“When someone can rent a movie at Redbox for a $1 or see a show at JPAC for $24, that's a competitive situation, and we have to convince people of the value of productions at JPAC.”

Demographics are a factor as the local population ages.

Horvath said JPAC tries to balance giving residents what they want right now and developing an audience over time.

That's one reason JPAC has expanded its outreach to children and young families.

The idea, she said, is to cultivate an interest in the arts that is sustainable for both the center and the community.

PROJECT NEXT DOOR

A proposed outdoor amphitheater just to the north of the center would complement JPAC and boost the local arts scene during months when the center's stage is typically dark, organizers said.

The charitable arm of Forward Janesville is leading an effort to build Janesville Riverfront Amphitheater.

The $4.8 million project would include a stage large enough to accommodate a symphony. It also would have a permanent ticket, restroom and concession area. For big events, the space could hold up to 4,200 people.

The project includes work inside JPAC, which would support activities outside.

John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, said JPAC would provide management and operational expertise to the amphitheater.

“The interconnectivity between JPAC and the Riverfront Amphitheater is obvious on many levels,” he said. “Operating an outdoor venue of this caliber is a complicated deal, and it requires the expertise of JPAC.”

Beckord said the amphitheater is an important part of the community's overall downtown redevelopment plan.

“The idea is to get more engagement with the river, and this will be perfect in that regard,” he said. “It will be developed with a high level of integrity, without any direct taxpayer support, and will include a very professional performance stage with outstanding sound and lighting.”

Beckord said the Roth Pavilion under construction on Main Street in Lower Courthouse Park will add another point of cultural activity in downtown Janesville.

Blain Gilbertson said the amphitheater would complement JPAC in growing and diversifying the arts in Janesville.

It also would help draw new people­—visitors and potential employees—to town.

“It will be another piece, but it's only a piece,” she said. “It's got great potential to add to the original anchor that JPAC is. It will be one more thing that connects the dots of a vibrant community.”

Swanson agrees.

“In the big picture, I think the amphitheater will be another catalyst for downtown development,” she said. “It's a great opportunity to make a statement about what we want our community to be.”



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