JOLIET – The page is about to turn on the next chapter of the Rialto Square Theatre.
On Wednesday, the board of the historic theater in downtown Joliet approved an interim management contract with VenuWorks that will cost the Rialto $1 per month for four months. With a six-page transition list in tow, the Iowa-based company will begin Sept. 1 a hands-on assessment of all facets of the theater.
Both VenuWorks and the Rialto Board agreed a week was not enough time to negotiate a multi-year deal. VenuWorks founder and President Steve Peters said Thursday that a typical contract in a situation like this is a five-year deal, with an option to renew for another five years after the initial agreement concludes.
In the next four months, VenuWorks intends to invest about $50,000 of its own money in the Rialto just by placing staff and resources in Joliet, Peters said. There are plans to invest $350,000 for food and beverage equipment as well.
Rialto employees will become VenuWorks employees, though roles and titles could change. Peters called current employees vital to success.
“You don’t just call up central casting and get a new bunch,” he noted.
They also will be seeking new ideas so the theater can reach higher and do better, Peters said, and seek ways to partner with downtown businesses and restaurants. Most area residents have a Rialto story, he added, which means they will be engaged in the process.
Peter asked residents to have realistic expectations for the changes and the amount of time it takes to implement them. Still, the interim contract is being viewed by both parties as the first step in a new direction, one that will allow the Rialto to “turn the corner.”
The Rialto board has received a lot of criticism since November 2014 during a controversy over a new marquee that was abandoned and earlier this year over cash-flow problems leading to the departure of former general manager Randy Green.
But Rialto Board Chairman Dan Vera said he believes the community can get behind the new management, and the future will be bright with support from area residents, volunteers, employees and other principals.
“We’ve made that turn,” he said Thursday. “We’re moving forward.”
There has been constructive criticism throughout the process of choosing a third-party manager.
In July, Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk and the City Council discussed the idea of buying the Rialto, saying that it could at least control its business model. At that time, O’Dekirk was glad to hear the Rialto Board was considering a third-party management service.
Then, earlier this month, O’Dekirk said proposals by VenuWorks and second-place finisher Pinnacle Venue Services weren’t good deals because while the management companies collected a profit, the Rialto was forecast to lose money.
Both companies presented tentative budgets that would increase shows and revenues each year, thus annually decreasing losses.
When asked Thursday whether it’s realistic to expect the Rialto to be profitable, O’Dekirk said the more important question is, how can it continue to lose money. He said that wasn’t answered by the third-party management proposals, adding that the theater’s debt and lawsuits against it continue to grow.
The city has been clear that it will treat the Rialto like any other business if it were to request assistance from the city, the mayor said, and he did not rule out subsidies.
Peters, during a presentation to the Rialto Board, presented a schedule for reducing the Rialto’s subsidy from the city, which was $600,000 this year, to $125,000 in three years, although he stressed, “These aren’t guarantees.” O’Dekirk said Thursday that he was glad to see a proposed Rialto budget with less city money.
Joliet City Councilman Pat Mudron, the council’s liaison to the Rialto, said it will be difficult for the Rialto to function without city subsidies. Mudron commended Peters, though, for believing a business needs to stand up on its own.
Mudron said City Council members would probably feel more comfortable backing shows if they see the theater is on its way to better days.
Mudron was part of the Rialto advisory committee that reviewed five third-party management proposals. He said he thinks it’s a great partnership for the Rialto, citing VenuWorks’ ability to book shows in large quantities. Because it manages 37 venues, he said it can guarantee more shows to a booking agent by opening up its various venues to them.
James Roolf, president of First Midwest Bank’s Joliet Banking Center and a member of an ad hoc committee of area business leaders that formed earlier this year with an aim of supporting the Rialto, noted VenuWorks’ experience in managing other historic theaters throughout the Midwest, and that the company manages real estate in some of its contracted properties.
Roolf calls the Rialto a complex situation as it is a theater that also has office space. About 63 percent of the Rialto’s real estate is currently rented out, according to Vera. All facets of the operation will contribute to its overall profitability, but Roolf said bringing in a variety of shows is of utmost importance.
“My kids and their respective spouses go to different shows than my wife and I do,” Roolf said. “From baby boomers to millennials – you have to provide programming that appeals to all of them.”
The programming needs to do more than just appeal to age ranges, he said.
“I’m a believer that the programming needs to be diversified,” Roolf said. “For Hispanics, for African-Americans, for Asians, etc. That’s a challenge. Being all things to all people can be a challenge – but you have to take that challenge.”