Metropolis' matching gift campaign, village subsidy help ensure the shows go on in Arlington Heights
Ticket sales are up; subscriptions rose by 35%. But those working to keep Metropolis Performing Arts Centre afloat -- at a time when other theaters across the country have paused programming or shut their doors altogether -- say it takes more than just box office receipts to ensure the show will go on.
That's why the Arlington Heights venue recently sought, and village officials approved, Metropolis' request to access $200,000 out of the $371,000 in the village's restricted contribution reserve fund established in 2015 and funded through food and beverage taxes.
While some may question the subsidy, artistic director Brendan Ragan says it's needed as the theater rebuilds after the pandemic. Though Metropolis is on pace to sell 1.2 million tickets this year, sales cover only between 40% and 50% of operating costs, he said.
"The good news is that not one penny of property taxes goes to Metropolis," said Ragan of the cash infusion, which will help maintain the theater, music, comedy and educational opportunities Metropolis patrons have come to expect since the venue opened in 2000.
In addition, the theater established a matching gift campaign -- Metropolis' Secure Our Future Initiative -- to revitalize operations and strengthen its commitment to the community. The tax-deductible donations will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to $300,000, with a goal of $571,000, said Ragan, who is committed to maintaining ticket prices in a "range that feels right for our community."
Metropolis will use the money to pay for teachers, costumes, sets and salaries among other expenses, Ragan said.
"All theaters are struggling and Metropolis is no different," said Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes, adding he is "encouraged about where they are and where they're going."
Studies show Metropolis' economic contribution to downtown Arlington Heights' success has been substantial, Hayes said.
Peggy Kinnane's Irish Restaurant & Pub co-owner Stacey Grobek says she and her husband have a great partnership with Metropolis, whose patrons often dine at downtown restaurants.
"They definitely bring in a lot of business both locally and from out of town," she said. "Typically people make a night of it and that helps us."
A survey of 600 Metropolis patrons found 88% patronize a restaurant before or after a show, said Ragan. Based on audiences numbering about 50,000 people annually, that translates to Metropolis driving between 40,000 and 45,000 patrons to neighboring dining spots.
"The other part of the equation is that we're a community that provides something for everybody and a diverse range of entertainment opportunities, not just for our residents but for residents from surrounding communities," Hayes said.
Yet, the pandemic took a toll on theaters, and Metropolis is no exception.
"More and more, reputable, renowned theaters are closing or drastically reducing programs," said Ragan.
That includes regional Tony Award winners Lookingglass Theatre, which last summer suspended programming until 2024, and Steppenwolf Theatre, which laid off 13 employees in August.
Part of the problem is the increased cost of equipment and materials, which comes at a time when many regular theater patrons are reconsidering discretionary spending and opting to attend one or two shows a year rather than subscribe for a season, Ragan said.
Additionally, theaters have had to raise wages to retain artists and staff.
Metropolis made some adjustments in response to the challenges. For example, instead of five shows, the 2023-2024 season includes four main stage shows -- plus a concert version of "The Music Man" and a performance series featuring Michael and Angela Ingersoll.
"We don't want to cut corners," said Ragan, who intends to resume a five-show season in 2024-2025. "Our model works best when our programming is robust."
That programming impacts the community economically as well as culturally. Ragan said the Secure Our Future campaign and the reserve fund subsidy are needed to help the theater sustain itself for another 25 years.
"This is not a save our stages request," said Ragan, looking ahead to the theater's future.
"Let's not gamble and wait until it's too late and we have to launch an urgent campaign, " he said. "The time is now."