JOLIET – A VenuWorks transition team is on what they call a “fact-finding mission” as they get a grasp of the possibilities and problems of the Rialto Square Theatre.
VenuWorks was hired last month as the third-party management team to guide the Rialto out of a financial morass and into a brighter future – one with more shows at the beloved downtown theater.
“My first goal is just booking available dates – getting shows here to get people into the building,” Interim Director Timothy Berry said.
Berry has been at the Rialto since Sept. 1 and said there have been some good signs.
One is that “the phone has been ringing,” he said. “I’ve had several phone calls from people saying, ‘What dates are available?’ ”
He even had to turn down a comedy act because the promoter wanted the same date as a show already scheduled. Despite a stagnant five months when the Rialto stopped booking shows during a management restructuring that eventually led to the decision to hire VenuWorks, the theater is not exactly dead, which, Berry said, is what many people think.
“The perception out there is that the place is dark 24/7,” he said.
Changing perceptions in the local community and in the entertainment industry is important, said Tricia Gonyo, VenuWorks’ vice president of sales and marketing, who arrived Wednesday. She said VenuWorks is busy “getting the Rialto back on the map with promoters” while also getting a handle on the theater’s operations.
“We’re on a fact-finding mission,” Gonyo said.
One stubborn fact that VenuWorks is dealing with is the debt that has mounted at the Rialto as revenue slowed along with theater activity.
The backlog in bills is set at about $500,000, and a former cleaning contractor last month filed a lawsuit seeking payment from the Rialto.
It’s the biggest bill backlog that VenuWorks Controller Mike Piehl has encountered.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I think we’re up to it,” Piehl said. “I’ve never seen a cash flow shortage this high, but we’ve had shortages.”
VenuWorks manages 37 theaters, sports facilities, conference centers and outdoor venues. It operates several historic theaters with histories similar to the Rialto.
Part of Piehl’s job will be to create a plan for paying off bills and a realistic budget for the Rialto. He arrived Wednesday morning and did not have any quick answers for solving the theater’s financial problems.
“We just have to find a way,” he said.
“I look around here, and I don’t see a lot of wasteful operations,” Berry said.
Berry said the staff has been open with the theater’s vendors about the financial shortfall.
“The current staff that is here has been very straightforward and very transparent in dealing with vendors,” he said. “Nobody’s turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to the situation.”
To find a way out of the Rialto’s financial predicament, the VenuWorks team will look for shows and other events to generate revenue at the same time that it assesses operations.
“The phrase I use with people here is we’ve got to sail our boat while we’re building it,” Berry said. “We can’t pull off to the side of the road. Quite frankly, that’s what was done for the last five months.”
One promising sign is community enthusiasm for the Rialto that the VenuWorks managers say is at a level that they have not encountered before. Gonyo said it “has been fun” to experience the local attachment to the Rialto.
“The community here is very passionate about the theater,” Gonyo said. “They’re very involved.”