‘Don’t let theater die,’ residents tell Gig Harbor City Council

An older Ralphie, played by Michael Drake, shows off the prized Red Ryder BB gun while mimicked by a younger Ralphie, played by Ethan Edwards, during a dress rehearsal for “A Christmas Story” at Paradise Theater in Gig Harbor in November 2016. The theater operators are seeking help from the City Council to keep the theater open.
An older Ralphie, played by Michael Drake, shows off the prized Red Ryder BB gun while mimicked by a younger Ralphie, played by Ethan Edwards, during a dress rehearsal for “A Christmas Story” at Paradise Theater in Gig Harbor in November 2016. The theater operators are seeking help from the City Council to keep the theater open.

The Gig Harbor City Council chambers were packed on Monday night as droves of Paradise Theatre supporters came to voice their opinion and present a petition to the council to help find city funding for the theater.

The council heard almost an hour of public comment from Gig Harbor, Key Peninsula, Port Orchard, Tacoma and Lakewood residents who either participate in the theater or enjoy the shows produced at the small community playhouse.

“If Paradise closes, I will not be able to continue my acting because there are no other theaters,” Lakebay teen Alexander Sprague said. “Nowadays there are movies, Netflix and YouTube. But there are still live theaters, which allow you to unplug and reconnect. They are just amazing. If Gig Harbor loses Paradise, we would lose one of our main community outlets.”

A rent hike — to $8,500 from $2,000, not including utilities — means the theater is losing its current location near Seven Seas Brewery in Gig Harbor and can’t do another season there. The theater’s board of directors is working to raise enough money through donations to keep the theater open for an additional season. The theater has started a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of $150,000.

On Monday, Paradise Theatre owners Jeff and Vicki Richards presented an economic study on the theater and a petition with over 1,200 signatures asking the city to find more money in the upcoming budget to support the theater.

Jeff Richards said community theater is the centerpiece to the fabric of a society and promotes healthy neighborhoods, towns and cities.

“An active community theater should be a part of any community that would like to grow and prosper,” Richards said.

Richards also noted a theater is a safe space where discussion about political and social issues can be performed on stage without outside hostility.

“What is great about local theater is it promotes and nurtures a social, political and artful conversation. But it’s a safe space. We can do it without yelling and beating each other up,” he said.

According to the data Richards presented to the council, the Gig Harbor economy could lose up to $100,000 annually if Paradise Theatre closed. Richards cited money spent by theater-goers, who usually go shopping and eat at local restaurants before a show, and money spent in the economy by the theater to create costumes and sets for the season.

“What am I up here blabbing about? Our budget is $180,000, give or take, year to year ... our current rent will jump to 50 percent of our budget. We can’t support that,” Richards said. “We hope the city will find some room in the budget to support us through a building or funding.”

Vicki Richards said Mayor Kit Kuhn did offer a small portion of city funds to help the theater.

“So far, the mayor has only offered $2,000 for the year available after Jan. 1,” Vicki Richards wrote The Gateway. “Not very promising to sustain theater for the community. He also had us look at the Masonic Lodge, which was too small and needed many upgrades.”

The last show the theater produced was “The Music Man,” whose run ended in August. The theater is looking to make use of the former Fred Meyer store in Olympic Village on Olympic Drive.

Vicki Richards said she has been speaking with the building’s owner about using the space. Because the building is so large, she said, the theater would share the space with other local theater and art communities.

The council agreed it wanted to support local art and theater in the city, and Kuhn advised the council to plan a time to discuss the theater in upcoming budget meetings and discussions.

During the mayor’s comment portion of the meeting, Kuhn said the council went through the preliminary budget “line by line” and is excited to say an estimated $3.5 million will be reduced from the budget in the upcoming year. Kuhn did not give detail on where the $3.5 million will be cut from. Budget sessions are scheduled for the week of Oct. 8 and Oct. 16.

Is the city double-dipping?

Councilman Michael Perrow voiced concerns about the city potentially “drawing from the well” too many times after the same pool of money was cited as a way to pay for two different agenda items. Perrow also noted he was worried about the lack of comment on either item from the city’s finance director, David Rodenbach.

“I worry we are over-visiting the well, and we are not going to have enough,” Perrow said. “Without the finance director coordinating, we could trip.”

One of the items was a budget amendment to advertise and hire a community development director, a new position in the city. That effort could cost $9,151 to $11,439 for recruitment and position advertisements in addition to the new director’s salary.

The proposal stated there would be no additional cost to the city due to recent planning director Jennifer Kester resigning from her role, saving the city money on her salary. The council voted unanimously to approve the budget amendment.

The second item was a request from Councilman Bob Himes to spend $15,000 on an outside consultant to help create an ordinance to amend city code in regards to minimum lot size requirements.

The desire to reduce or eliminate minimum lot size requirements from the city code was born during the city’s six-month building and development moratorium.

Himes cited the extra budget monies from Kester’s unused salary, which raised eyebrows by Perrow and city staff.

Interim planning director and parks department director Katrina Knutson said she was concerned about the source of funding but also noted the staff was overwhelmed with other projects and could not start work on this amendment in the council’s requested time line.

Councilman Jim Franich said he believed the city had enough information on the issue and would be ready to create an amendment and vote without additional research. Councilwoman Jeni Woock agreed with Franich, but both joined their colleagues in unanimously voting to approve Hime’s request.

Perrow said he hoped the city would “find the money” for the project and that he was glad he had a chance to voice his concerns.

Danielle Chastaine: 253-358-4155, @gateway_danie