New Orleans officials today are set to announce an innovative plan for a city agency to take ownership of the majestic Saenger Theatre while leaving management in the hands of its longtime owners, who intend to reopen the shuttered playhouse by 2011.
The deal counts on $38 million in federal and state money and tax credits to restore the iconic movie palace that has festered since Hurricane Katrina. And while the transaction would take the building off the property tax rolls, it guarantees the city a minimum of $100,000 in rent payments annually, plus $50,000 a year toward major renovations, officials said Monday.
"We're hoping it will serve as a foundation for the resurgence of the other theaters along Canal Street, " including the Joy, State Palace and Orpheum, said Cindy Connick, executive director of the city agency that will administer the project.
"The Saenger is the sentimental favorite in the city. I have heard of more people who had their first date there, their first kiss, maybe saw their first Broadway show there, " she said. "It's important for the city to have the Saenger come back."
Under the deal, the property's current owner, Houston-based Saenger Theatre Partnership Ltd., would donate the property to the Canal Street Development Corp. in return for the right to operate the theater for at least 50 years, according to an attorney for the city agency and a partner in the management group.
The former owner also would manage a massive renovation with financing secured by the Canal Street agency, including $13 million in federal grants authorized by the state, said the attorney, Scott Whittaker.
The rest of the money would come from state and federal tax credits, including the new state benefit dubbed "Broadway South, " said Connick and Kirk Feldmann, the theater group partner.
"Tax credit investors have been identified. They're real. We're way down the road for all of that. The tax credit component is solid, " Feldmann said.
City officials are expected to sign an agreement today allowing the development corporation to administer the federal grants. Because the Saenger was privately owned at the time of the storm, the money would not be available without the public-private partnership.
Under its lease, the management group will commit to hosting at least 80 shows a year at the 2,700-seat theater and to selling 100,000 tickets annually, Whittaker said, though he said managers hope to draw closer to 160 shows every year.
The firm will pay $1 per ticket in rent, plus 50 cents per ticket toward renovations. The fees will be fixed for 10 years, and then increase with inflation.
If the thresholds are not met in the first three years, the city may seek a new manager, Whittaker said.
Built in 1927 at the corner of Canal and North Rampart streets, the Saenger was known as an ornate movie house before a 1979 makeover transformed it into the city's showcase for touring theater companies.
It was poised for a major renovation when Katrina struck, damaging the roof as well as the building's mechanical, operational and electrical systems.
Within months, city officials approached the Saenger Theatre Partnership with various proposals, including closing off a block of Iberville Street to accommodate large deliveries, Feldmann said.
Since then, he said, owners have invested "several million" dollars into roof repairs.
According to city records, the property was appraised this year at $1.58 million and billed for $22,826 in city property taxes. Likely owing to storm damage, the appraisal is only slightly less than the $1.7 million the property sold for in 1985, records show.
As part of its agreement with the Canal Street Development Corp., the theater group will oversee efforts to renovate with an eye toward the theater's original decor, including gold-leaf accents, life-size statues and lavish chandeliers, said David Anderson, another partner.
"Most of that has been lost because of the storm damage, " he said. "There is a huge amount of time and money that is going to into the authentic restoration of the interior."
The firm will be responsible for attracting major stage productions, comedy shows and musical acts, a task Feldmann said will be handled in tandem with another recently revived performance space in New Orleans.
Through its principals, Saenger Theater Partnership has close corporate ties with Arts Center Enterprises Inc., the firm hired to operate the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, which reopened last week.
Feldmann said operating two theaters in post-Katrina New Orleans poses a risk because the level of demand for live performance is "unknown, " but the company at least will be able to ensure that runs of popular shows don't overlap.
"Hopefully, we can avoid the classic scenario of booking 'Cats' right on top of 'The Nutcracker, ' " he said.
Hopes are that both properties will attract a large local audience, as well as theater-goers from eastern Texas to Mississippi. The city likely will benefit from ongoing good will among producers, actors, musicians and other artists to help New Orleans get back on its feet, he said.
"There is a huge love affair with the entertainment community and their desire to come back to New Orleans and show their allegiance and support for this community, " Feldmann said. "They're dying to come."
by Greg Lake