By Ben Olson
Veronica Knowlton has passion — that much is evident after speaking with her for just a few minutes. The 28-year-old chosen by the Panida Board of Trustees as the new managing director for the theater has hit the ground running and is excited to be at the helm of such an important piece of the Sandpoint community.
Born in Alameda County, Calif., Knowlton had big dreams even at an early age.
“Growing up, I wanted to be the first girl on Mars,” she told the Reader.
From elementary school to high school, Knowlton’s other main passion was the world of highly competitive softball.
“The last years of my high school were focused on playing college ball,” she said. “But I had extensive damage to my rotator cuff and needed to get surgery.”
As she entered college, where she ultimately earned a business degree, Knowlton worked part-time in veterinary offices and as a nanny for years before responding to a Craigslist ad for a position as a summer marketing intern for the Alameda County Fair.
“It was good hands-on experience,” she said. “At the end of the internship I figured I’d be done and get to go back to college. When they onboard all their interns, it’s very clear cut that your last day would be Aug. 1, but that date came and went and they kept giving me projects.”
By her second summer, Knowlton was tasked with interviewing with news media, facilitating tours of the fairgrounds and being a lot more involved in the marketing department.
“By year three, they said, ‘Let’s host a cattle drive downtown for opening day of the fair,’ and they said, ‘Find me cows, find me cowboys.’ That’s how I got affectionately suckered into the fair business,” she said.
The cattle drive saw 166 head of cattle led down Main Street of Pleasanton, Calif., to celebrate the opening of the fair — by far Knowlton’s largest project to date.
Through the course of being delegated more responsibilities, Knowlton said she got to know the fair business inside and out. She put on year-round events, managed the box office, concessions and auditing, touching almost every aspect of operations other than maintenance.
“After the first cattle drive we did, it was joked with the Alameda Fair CEO that ‘Veronica’s going to become the next CEO; she’s coming for you,’” she said.
Knowlton brought that passion north when she interviewed with the North Idaho State Fair in Coeur d’Alene as the special events and marketing manager in spring 2021.
“I’d never heard of Coeur d’Alene or Sandpoint before,” she said. “But flying in and seeing the pine trees, I knew I was in trouble. I thought I better get this job because I want to live here.”
Knowlton moved to North Idaho in March 2021 after accepting the fair position, but since fairs are seasonal and temporary, she began looking for bigger projects to take on that summer and noticed the Panida Theater was hiring a managing director.
Bringing seven years of large event management experience, a youthful energy and a can-do attitude to her job interview, Knowlton said she sees many similarities between fair work and community theater management.
“Working at a theater has so much community involvement, I almost don’t feel like I left the fair world,” she said. “Everybody loves the Panida. That was evident at the beginning of this process. … I went through the interview process and was fortunate to be selected.”
Moving to North Idaho in the middle of a real estate boom was challenging, especially with few affordable options available for renters and newcomers.
“I think through the course of me moving here, I’ve used every ounce of good karma in my life,” Knowlton said. “I found a room for rent in Coeur d’Alene on Facebook Marketplace and within three weeks of moving, the Wall Street Journal published an article that said Coeur d’Alene was the hottest real estate market in the country. I thought, ‘I won’t be buying a house anytime soon.’”
But, after accepting the Panida position in August, Knowlton said she found a place to call home.
“The universe served up this cute little house in Cocolalla that’s just perfect for me and my dog,” she said.
Knowlton said the Panida Board presented many good questions during her interview, but she did her homework and was prepared with a marketing plan.
“I put together a hypothetical fundraising campaign and at the end of the interview, I said, ‘I could do this.’ You start small and you grow together, and here I am at the helm.”
One of her first priorities is making sure the math works out for the Panida’s revenue.
“For our promoters and clients, the math doesn’t work at 50% capacity,” she said. “Our board has done an amazing job securing operational grants. The question is, ‘How much revenue do I need to survive until the end of the year?’ With that being said, I see COVID as more of a present operational challenge. I have to live in this world right now.”
Knowlton said while she’s focused on the present, she also has a keen eye on the future.
“The Panida was built in 1927, so I’m jazzed at looking at a centennial birthday in about five years,” she said. “What’s our five-year vision? There’s a lot of talk about the Little Theater — how can we remodel that to fit long term goals and make the space more inviting. COVID is my current stomachache, but what excites me is the challenge of the centennial.”
A key approach will be to reach out to key players in the community to ask what is important to them.
“I’m working with POAC and the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint, making sure the theater can be good partners and stewards of that relationship,” she said. “We’re meeting with some long-term local talents to see what’s important to them in the long term. I don’t have goals for more movies vs. live performances. First is fostering a good working relationship with people who value the Panida.”
Knowlton said one of her biggest pieces of confusion is the membership at the Panida.
“There’s almost a lack of communication on what a member is,” she said. “I’d like to rework the structure through our website and social channels and say, ‘Here’s what a $1,000 membership gets you, a reserved seat, some kind of perks package, etc.’ That’s one of my things to work on before the end of the year.”
Another aspect of running a nonprofit theater is grant writing, which Knowlton said falls under her umbrella of experience.
“Through the course of agricultural education and community outreach pieces, I have secured over $500,000 in grants,” she said. “Compared to what [Board member] Foster Cline does on our board, my pinky toe barely went into the ocean. … I do think all grant money is good money, especially when we’re limited to 50% capacity. Whether we host events or not, the floors need refinished and we still need a roof on the Little Theater. I’m very thankful to have Foster spearheading that right now.”
Regarding the Little Theater, Knowlton said she’s had multiple discussions about whether or not to pursue the sale of the building to help fund main theater renovations and upkeep.
“The board passed a fundraising goal of $200,000 by the end of the year,” she said. “If they meet that goal, the sale of the building will be taken off the table. I have not been actively involved in that campaign, but I know a lot of people have passionate opinions about the Little Theater. I have not done enough homework and talked to enough people to see which way I want to lean. I’m trusting the board and fundraising efforts and will take their recommendations.”
Living in North Idaho is a dream for Knowlton, who said she is passionate about anything outdoors.
“I have a mountain bike, snowshoes, snowboard,” she said. “My kayak is my favorite toy I ever bought. I have a dog named Tater Tot, and I think when I retire I want to be a dog trainer. I love to waterfowl hunt and plan on going deer hunting later this fall. When the weather is terrible you’ll find me in the kitchen making everything from scratch. I love to cook and love to eat, which dovetails to hunting, because I love knowing where my food comes from.”
In the meantime, Knowlton said she’s hopeful for the future of the Panida and is honored to be the steward for the future of the “heart and soul” of Sandpoint.
“Stop and say hi and introduce yourself,” she said. “I’m doing my best to get out and meet everybody. I’d love to meet you and hear your favorite memory for the Panida and hope to provide more future memories.”
The Panida Theater will hold its annual membership meeting Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 6 p.m. at the theater, where they will also light the marquee after repairs have been completed.
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