EUREKA SPRINGS -- The 87-year-old municipal auditorium in Eureka Springs straddles East Leatherwood Creek, which slowly is eroding part of the building's foundation.
This photo, taken from the Eureka Springs courthouse on April 11, 1928, shows the groundbreaking for the city’s municipal auditorium.
The newly constructed Eureka Springs municipal auditorium is shown in 1929.
Seating inside The Auditorium as seen Wednesday on Main Street in Eureka Springs.
Eureka Springs Mayor Butch Berry walks down an aisle Wednesday at The Auditorium on Main Street in Eureka Springs.
When the gymnasium in the basement of The Auditorium was briefly converted to a roller rink a decade ago, skates wore holes through the wooden floor.
"You could literally see [through] holes in the floor down to the creek," Mayor Robert "Butch" Berry said at a recent meeting of the Eureka Springs City Council.
Affectionately known as The Aud, the four-story limestone building on Main Street was finished weeks before the stock market crash of 1929. Construction cost $90,000, which is about $1.27 million in today's dollars.
Once the center of the community, The Aud was home to high school basketball games, Saturday night dances and concerts. The first concert there was by John Philip Sousa and his 67-piece band on a warm September night in 1929. An overflow crowd listened from the street as boys shinnied up trees to watch through the open windows.
Since then, many famous people have performed in the 950-seat auditorium, including Ray Charles, Willie Nelson and Bill Cosby.
But more recently The Aud has become an "albatross," said one alderman. Another called it a "hot potato" because oversight of the historic building passed from one department to another before landing in the lap of the City Advertising and Promotion Commission about 15 years ago.
Berry said it's difficult to make a profit on big-name performers in The Aud because of its small size. The Aud tends to be a loss-leader for the city, with annual operating and maintenance costs exceeding revenue.
He said the city needs to hire a full-time auditorium manager and establish a commission to oversee the building, but the tourist town of 2,073 residents doesn't have the money to do that.
The mayor and council are asking voters to pass a 1 percent sales tax on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. The tax revenue would provide about $275,000 a year for The Aud, in addition to $825,000 a year for improvements, maintenance and repairs of the city's aging water and sewer infrastructure. The tax would be in place for 10 years.
With a full-time auditorium manager and commission, it would be easier to return The Aud to its role as a profitable events center, said Berry. Also, it would take about $30,000 to fix the foundation damage, he said. The holes in the gym floor were repaired years ago.
Berry said it costs $140,000 to $150,000 a year now to maintain and operate The Aud. That amount includes about $40,000 for the salary of a sound technician.
The Advertising and Promotion Commission provides about $110,000 of yearly costs from its 3 percent sales tax on hotels and restaurants, and the mayor's budget provides another $40,000.
Besides paying the salary of an auditorium manager, revenue from the new sales tax could go toward more events, said Berry. And the commission could devote all of the money it gives The Aud to advertising and promotion, instead of salaries and other expenses, said the mayor.
Berry said two committees have studied The Aud, and both recommended taking it from the Advertising and Promotion Commission and giving it to a separate commission.
"It's hard for it to be self-sustaining right now," said Berry. "There's no steady revenue for support. It has a lot of possibilities. It just needs somebody to take care of it better."
Berry said some people have complained that the Advertising and Promotion Commission should have done a better job managing The Auditorium.
"But in my opinion, that's not really the [commission's] mission," said Berry.
City Code 2.56.03 states that revenue from the commission's tax can go toward advertising and promotion for the city, or to the maintenance, operation and repair of a "convention center." Berry said The Aud could fall under that definition. The building has been used for overflow from conventions at town hotels.
Alderman Terry McClung, who is on the Advertising and Promotion Commission, said the commission doesn't have the staff to do its business of advertising and promotion and run The Auditorium as well. He said the commission will continue to fund The Aud, probably with more than $100,000 a year.
"I can't say specifically it will be $100,000-plus but that's what we've been talking about," McClung said Thursday.
At a meeting Monday of the City Council, Alderman David Mitchell said it's imperative that the voters know on Nov. 8 to what extent the Advertising and Promotion Commission will support The Aud if the tax passes.
"Put it in writing, lay it out, show the public and do it," said Mitchell.
Alderman James DeVito, who also serves on the commission, described The Auditorium as a "hot potato" at Monday's meeting.
"The [commission] never said, 'Please, let us handle The Auditorium,'" said DeVito. "In essence, what happened is the city said, "Here, you take it.' So we took it and we did the best we could with it."
June Westphal, a Eureka Springs historian, said The Auditorium was built in part because automobile tourism was booming in the 1920s and the city needed an entertainment center.
But now, nearby venues like the Walmart AMP in Rogers and the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville bring in well-known performers, making it less likely that residents of those areas will drive to Eureka Springs for a concert at The Aud.
Expensive concerts at The Aud require expensive ticket prices to make a profit, and the locals aren't usually the audience for those shows, said Westphal.
"Most of the people of Eureka Springs live on limited means, working or retired," she said. "There's not enough local use for the ticketed performances."
Glenna Booth, Eureka Springs' historic preservation officer, said The Auditorium went through a $500,000 renovation in 2003 and 2004. Half of that money came through a Save America's Treasures Grant from the National Park Service.
The renovation included refinishing the floor, upholstering seats, installing new carpet and fixing the cracked stage.
Booth said the interior of The Auditorium resembles one at Central High School in Little Rock.
"It's a typical 1920s auditorium," she said.
While basketball games are no longer held in the gym of The Auditorium, many other events are, said Westphal. Those include the Eureka Springs Ozark Folk Festival, Ozarks Chorale concerts and Christmas programs by the elementary and middle schools.
"There really isn't any place else that you can have a crowd of 1,000 seated, comfortable and inside and have any program or event except The Auditorium," said Westphal.
She said it's "unthinkable" that the building not be maintained and not available for local use.
"Historically, it's worth preserving," said Westphal. "There are things that are just too good to give up."
Metro on 10/02/2016
Print Headline: 'Aud' beloved, but a money loser