For want of a roof, the expansion could be lost

I love the theatre, especially community theatre, which gives me a certain desire to see as much funding as possible go toward the performing arts.

However, when I see how tight money is for everyone, and how governments are slicing and dicing all over the place, I realize that the gravy train for public arts can only go so far without some compromises being made.

The issue of government funding for the public arts is hitting home here in Shawano. The community has the Mielke Arts Center, a very nice theatrical facility for a rural area, especially considering the small population. The facility is showing some wear and tear, especially on the roof, where blue tarps cover where the shingles are gone.

The non-profit organization that runs the theatre, the Shawano County Arts Council, has been seeking to expand the facility for years. There is a pot of about $250,000 saved up for the expansion, not enough to make it a reality.

The theatre building is owned by the county, which has to manage any kind of maintenance work, whether fixing it up or making it bigger. Because it’s a public entity, it has to solicit bids for the expansion. The county figured there would be enough in the arts council’s fund to expand at least the dressing rooms and the green room. Last month, their theory was proven wrong as the lowest bid came in more than $109,000 over budget.

County supervisors believe they don’t need to expend more money than is absolutely necessary. The theatre folks obviously believe the expansion needs to move forward no matter the cost. Makes for a fascinating impasse.

The first logical route would seem to be to just fix the roof and see if more money can be raised. County officials are quoting $22,000 for a shingle roof and $60,000 for a metal roof. Either one could be covered with the $250,000 saved up. The only problem is that any future expansion would require taking that new roof and scrapping it. Not exactly the wisest use of money.

Still, that tarp is not going to last forever, especially with all the snow that comes with Wisconsin winters. That roof needs to be replaced soon. The only question is whether the county should put out for the expansion or put it on hold for a couple of decades.

My vote is to go forward with the expansion. Any theatre group that wants to grow should be allowed to do so. I understand money is tight, but considering the county just agreed to put a new roof on the jail, also over budget I might add, it seems a shame to shelter the convicts and not the thespians.

However, if the county agrees to give a little, then the Shawano County Arts Council needs to be prepared to step up their game. I don’t mean steady improvement. I mean going into put-up-or-shut-up mode.

Right now, the arts council presents the area with four theatrical productions a year, an arts and crafts fair and a folk music festival. Otherwise, the Mielke Arts Center stays dormant. Donations and grants can only go so far. If the arts council wants its improvements, it needs to improve via more shows, including bringing in outside concerts and events. An 800-seat theatre might not be enough to bring in big names like Carrie Underwood or Linkin Park, but there are plenty of folks out there that could fill the seats. The more seats are filled, the more money comes in.

The solution is simple. Both sides need to step up. If change is to occur, it will be essential.

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