Panida meeting touches on vision for future of both theaters

Camps square off on selling versus keeping Little Theater

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

After almost two decades of “kicking the can down the road,” in the words of one Panida board member, the theater’s board of directors hosted a public meeting Feb. 10 to discuss the vision and planning for both the Little Theater and the historic theater next door on First Avenue. About 50 people filled the room at the Little Theater and heard three presentations from the Panida board and staff.

Photo by Ben Olson.

“The board will not be voting on the future of the Little Theater at this meeting,” Board Chair Jim Healey said. “Like you, board members will be listening and hearing each of your voices on this matter.”

While no decision was made, the biggest topic of conversation centered on whether to sell the Little Theater.

Managing Director Veronica Knowlton first presented an overview of the Panida’s finances, estimating monthly expenses for both theaters at around $13,000 — most going toward salaries and professional services.

“However, 2021 saw a steep decline in expenses and an exponential increase in grants,” she said. 

Knowlton then said expenses to operate the Little Theater averaged just under $200 per month, most of that going toward insurance premiums. 

“Gratefully we don’t have a mortgage anymore and, since we’re a nonprofit, we don’t have to pay property tax,” she said.

Knowlton said the main theater generates about $12,210 per month in revenue, a third of that total for rentals, amounting to an average $490 loss per month.

“For every dollar we earn, we spend $1.16,” she said. “However, we have turned a profit on the bottom line the last six months.”

Knowlton said she hopes to change the focus from fundraising as the main revenue generating effort, instead “increasing the profitability of the space.”

She said the Little Theater could earn up to $30,000 annually to further support the main theater, mainly by increasing the amount of rentals as well as renting out the retail space in front of the building, which could possibly earn $1,500 per month.

“My ask is time,” she said. “We’ve held the [Little] Theater for 19 years. I would simply ask for time that this would be a profitable venture.”

Arguments both for and against keeping the Little Theater focused on profitability and access.

“All of us had assumed the Little Theater was the albatross around the neck of the big theater,” said Dyno Wahl, speaking on behalf of the Pend Oreille Arts Council. “We see now that isn’t so much the case.”

Later during the meeting, musician Katelyn Shook said, “[T]his is a very important venue in town. It’s really the only one left of this size that cultivates a listening environment. … I know 100 acts that can’t play a big venue like the Panida because nobody knows them and it would be too expensive for them to play. There’s nowhere else in town they could play.”

According to Board member Jimmy Matlosz, concessions made more than sponsorships or donations in the past five years, adding that, “The Little Theater can generate revenue. … Selling the Little Theater should be the last resort.”

Matlosz outlined a quick list of fixes and improvements that were needed in both theaters, which includes simple items, like painting and brightening up with lighting, as well as more expensive repairs like roof work, sprinkler system upgrades, flooring and others. Matlosz said while some improvements will require substantial money, others can be tackled with elbow grease.

“It will take an army and a village to do this,” he said. 

Panida staffer Doug Jones reminded people that the Little Theater building is in dire need of structural repairs.

“It’s not just going to happen by rolling up your sleeves,” Jones said. “It will take a lot of fundraising and real money spent if you want to make it the vision you’re seeing here.”

Knowlton said a recent inspection by Selkirk Fire buoyed her opinion of the state of the building.

“I asked them point blank, ‘How likely is this building to be condemned?’” she said. “They said the foundation had some damage, and there are improvements to be made, but we are not in any immediate danger short of an earthquake or fire. We had a few minor violations, but structurally we are sound.”

One main area of concern is the roof of the main theater. One estimate of $180,000 has been received, but the board said more bids are needed before landing on that number.

The final portion of the meeting saw a presentation by Chris Bessler, a former board member, on developing a strategic plan for the Panida, which he said will help identify and outline specific costs needed for future capital campaigns (full disclosure: Bessler’s company Keokee co-owns the Reader with Ben Olson).

“We had a community meeting June 7, and since that time we’ve been wrestling with questions of the Little Theater and the bigger question of how we can enhance the big theater,” Bessler said. “The bottom line is it requires a lot of money … and some crucial groundwork is needed before we can execute that capital campaign. We need a long-term strategic plan for the main and Little Theater.”

Bessler outlined a draft strategic plan, which focuses on four main goals: community enrichment, cultural and artistic, operations, and finance and infrastructure. The draft plan was mostly a snapshot of what a strategic plan would look like, but the underlying goal of a future plan would be to capitalize on the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the Panida, which occurs in 2027.

Bessler suggested the board create an ad hoc committee to build out and finalize a strategic plan with action plans to achieve each goal. With that groundwork laid and an emphasis on specific goals, he said the Panida could then launch a major capital campaign. 

“There’s no question the main theater is the top priority, but we can also do things with the Little Theater to help accomplish those priorities,” he said. “It would be terribly short-sighted to lose this asset.”

Cline gave a report from the fundraising committee, which generated $53,000 during the successful “Unite to Light the Marquee” to restorate the defining feature of the Panida’s historic facade. Cline set a goal of raising $200,000 during the June meeting, where discussions of selling the Little Theater first emerged, but said that campaign wasn’t successful because there hasn’t been a commitment by the board to keep the Little Theater, which he said has cultivated an uncertainty with potential donors.

“The majority of the board was for selling,” Cline said. “As an individual board member, looking at this theater about to be sold, I was shocked and concerned. I wanted us to hold off on selling and get the community together with cooler heads.”

Cline floated the idea that the Panida could obtain a low-interest loan for $200,000 to help pay for a project such as opening up a pass-through between the Panida’s main lobby and the Little Theater.

“If you got a SBA loan for 30 yars at 3% interest, to work and handle that loan takes only about $733 per month. If I would pay $100 per month and get six other people to donate the same, we could poke a hole in that amount in just the first year. … We could connect these lobbies, maybe put some tables in here and people could see what they were paying for. Alcohol is a cash cow. It has a 400 to 600% markup. If we sold during intermission and gave people a place to be at intermission or after the show, we’d have a lot more money.”

Hannah Combs, who has served POAC and the city as a past-member of the Arts Commission, said: “Based on what I have seen here tonight, the staff and board of the Panida have restored my trust in the Panida and faith that it has a bright future. … I have faith now that you will make the decision in the best interest of the Panida.”

Sandpoint City Councilor Jason Welker reminded people that the new parks plan for downtown Sandpoint will undoubtedly see dramatic changes to First Avenue in the near future.

“The vision is to reorient First Avenue towards Sand Creek,” Welker said. “Having this potential frontage along Sand Creek with this location would be super valuable.”

Healey shared emails from some who encouraged the sale of the Little Theater, reading snippets from several.

Terry Meyers, a former Panida board member, wrote with concerns that the Little Theater hasn’t generated much profit in its 19 years, and that it has sunken into “disrepair and neglect.” “Consider that it’s time to cash in on the investment gains and use those profits to fund the main theater,” he wrote.

Another email, from Stanley Bernbaum, called the Little Theater a “nonperforming asset that is a drain on the Panida.”

Michael Boge, who hosts the annual Banff Film Festival at the Panida, lauded the board’s decision to hire Knowlton, and argued that members should, “Support her by putting the Panida in a better operating position by tossing the dead weight of the Little Theater.”

Longtime local Realtor Chris Chambers addressed the board at the end of the meeting, saying that fundraising in Sandpoint has always been achievable if the goals are set clearly.

“There’s a silent army out there that doesn’t come to these meetings, but if you ask them, they’ll step up and help. They’ll write a check,” he said. “You can sell this and have all the money, but you’ll go through it quick. If you make a million and a half, it’ll go down to $500,000 real quick after repairs. … Money is not scarce in this town. It’s abundant. You can ask for it. 

“Twenty years down the road, we won’t have this asset to sell if we need to,” he added. “I encourage everyone to take a step back and give the Little Panida Theater a chance to hatch now after 19 years. Give Veronica a chance to do what she was hired to do. It’s not anybody’s fault that we’re here, but here we are. If we can keep this, let’s do it.”

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