Turmoil at the Touhill

Is UMSL's performing-arts center back on track?

Since opening nearly two years ago, the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center has weathered its share of controversy. Dubbed "The Blanche" by vocal critics who characterized the theater at the University of Missouri-St. Louis as an ego-driven and expensive folly, the center has had trouble filling seats, endured massive budget deficits and received lackluster community support.

But all of that may be changing. According to a report delivered by the Touhill's new management team to the university's budget and planning committee earlier this month, the center is now poised to slice its operating deficit by half in the coming year -- and be completely balanced by 2010. It's a tall order for the Touhill, which opened with a $1.3 million debt and last year recorded an operating deficit of $750,000.

"There's no point giving out a [reduced-deficit] number we can't achieve, and I think we can achieve it," says Steve Schankman, who was hired last summer as a consultant for the center. "I think we're really on a roll now. We've got a great third season with a lot of good ideas. We can make this building a break-even building."

To that end, Schankman says, the center plans to cut the money-sucking Broadway shows from its rotation and concentrate more heavily on big-band performances and comedy acts. Despite a recent spate of employee defections, Schankman says key staff is in place to help reduce the deficit. And the building's new administrators, headed by Vice Chancellor for University Relations Dixie Kohn, plan to further shrink the center's marketing budget, which under the previous administration ballooned to more than $750,000.

"We got our hands on the marketing, which was really important," says Schankman, who also owns Contemporary Productions. "We can't do Broadway shows in one night. If you do one night, you have all the labor costs, all the sets. You just can't do a one-night Broadway turn -- there's no return."

But for all of the current administration's optimism, faculty observers remain guarded in their assessment. "I would describe it as cautiously skeptical," says Terrence Jones, a professor of political science who also chairs the budget and planning committee. "The faculty continues to be very concerned about the drain that this facility has on the campus."

Built for $52 million and named for former UMSL chancellor Blanche Touhill, the center has been behind the eight ball since its creation. Not only did the building have to drop more than $1 million in one-time start-up costs, but last year's $750,000 deficit came despite $500,000 in direct subsidy from the university.

UMSL also pays an estimated $500,000 annually for building maintenance and upkeep -- and that's saying nothing of the $250,000 the center reaps from student fees. All told, some faculty members estimate that the center ends up costing the university upwards of $2 million per year.

"In effect, the university is telling the performing arts center: 'You owe us cumulatively about $2.5 million,'" says Jones, who has been unconvinced by the project since its inception. "This level of subsidy is not acceptable over the long haul."

Committee members say they have good reason to be skeptical of the new administration's pledge to wipe out the facility's operating deficit by 2010. Just before leaving in April 2004, former Touhill executive director John Dale Kennedy reported to the committee that he expected the facility's deficit to weigh in at less than $70,000. The projection was based on the rosy assumption that the building would maintain a 70 percent occupancy rate. The real rate turned out to be closer to 47 percent, as committee members discovered last November after the building's new administration had a chance to review the books.

"We did everything squeezed up into a time frame that was really quite difficult. But that's the way this one happened," says Kennedy, now a consultant in Springfield, Illinois. Kennedy, who served as director for eighteen months, adds that no one should be surprised by the debt incurred in opening the building. "You had a half-year or more of staffing with no revenue coming in because you're getting the place open. We were developing a budget while we were opening the building, which is not the way to do it."

The experience left a bitter taste in the mouths of faculty members, who say the new projected deficit -- down to a $404,000 shortfall in the coming year -- does not account for many costs associated with the building.

"This budget does not include the $500,000 the university supplies for operating expenses," says Terrence Jones, adding that the subsidy is projected to continue through at least 2010. "It does not include [another] $500,000 it costs to clean the building and pay for utilities."

Dixie Kohn did not respond to an interview request for this story. However, UMSL spokesman Bob Samples says the Touhill should be regarded as an academic building.

"The building was never conceived as a purely commercial enterprise," Samples explains. "It's like any other building on campus. It functions as part of the academic mission of the campus -- it just has a little added area in the sense that it can generate revenue. Does it support itself? That's kind of like asking, 'Does the science complex support itself?' It probably would not support itself the same way the science complex does not support itself."

Still, Samples says the building's administrators aim to make the Touhill a break-even operation, meaning that it will not lose money from lousy ticket sales and inflated marketing costs. In that regard, Samples says Kohn and crew are making giant strides. "From a campus perspective, the building is moving in the right direction," he says.

Even the more skeptical observers concede that while many of the building's subsidies still have to be reduced and the building's standing debt repaid, Kohn and Schankman have put in place many practices that could lead the center into the black.

"[We're] reassured that Schankman's on the job," says Jones. "We're reassured that someone who knows what they're doing is advising us on what to do. One way to put this is: If anybody could make this work, it would be Steve Schankman, but maybe this is beyond Steve Schankman, too."

But even balancing the center's operating budget might not soothe every old wound inflicted by the building's creation. "I'm encouraged by what's happened this past year and what I think will happen next year," says budget and planning committee member Joseph Martinich, a professor of operations management at UMSL's business school. "There remains the overhanging bigger issue that this has been a very expensive proposition for the campus. That money that's been funding the deficit has come from faculty positions and other campus services."

Even so, one thing remains clear: The Touhill is here to stay. "The Touhill is not a cookie-cutter building; it has to be done by what St. Louis wants and needs, and what the Touhill has to offer," says Schankman. "Whether we wanted to build this or not, Blanche Touhill got this thing built, and we've got to make it work."

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