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Porter County Opera House looks to make cuts while making repairs

Interim director Michelle Smith looks as house manager Scot MacDonald works computer Valparaiso's Memorial OperHouse Tuesday Dec. 18 2012. |

Interim director Michelle Smith looks on as house manager Scot MacDonald works on a computer at Valparaiso's Memorial Opera House Tuesday Dec. 18, 2012. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 26, 2013 6:08AM



VALPARAISO — Michelle Smith, interim director of the Memorial Opera House, has created a 28-point list of things she has done to cut expenses since she took over the facility in August.

Some of them are small but add up, like putting a pop machine in the basement to generate revenue, and buying cheaper paper products.

Some are bigger, like no longer paying directors for the work, for savings of up to $6,000 a year, and holding a fundraiser in early December to pay for a new light board. The fundraiser made more than $5,000 beyond the cost of the light board.

But perhaps the biggest changes are a renewed effort to bring in donations so the Opera House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, can lessen its reliance on county dollars.

Toward that end, Smith is reinvigorating the Opera House’s not-for-profit foundation, which was inactive the past year, and the Porter County Board of Commissioners agreed Dec. 18 to hire a capital campaign director.

Luke Bowman will be paid $18,000 for the first year of a two-year contract; the goal of the capital campaign, Smith said, is to bring in between
$1 million and $4 million over that time.

“This really is key to us not having to go back to the county every time something happens with the building,” said Smith, who also is turning to local businesses to donate their services so the Opera House doesn’t have to pay for them. A local dry cleaner is now cleaning costumes for free, and a music store donated a piano.

The Porter County Board of Commissioners oversees the Opera House. Commissioners President John Evans, R-North, said the changes at the facility have all been positive, and that a capital campaign to fund work at the aging structure are long overdue.

“We can either keep floundering over there or make it a success, and I think that’s what this is going to do,” he said.

The Opera House’s budget for the coming year is $420,000, almost $100,000 less than it was for 2012. The 364-seat theater also received an additional $250,000 this year in local income tax funds, much of which went to cover day-to-day expenses.

The Opera House will be closed for much of January for roof and other repairs; commissioners approved that work, not to exceed $225,000, in early December.

The capital campaign and the foundation are meant to take the financial pressure off the county, and allow Smith to focus on running the theater instead of roof repairs, said John Peluso, now the foundation’s secretary, who has performed and directed at the Opera House.

The facility could host more events, he said, but it needs a lot of work, and that’s where the foundation and the capital campaign come in. Ideally, the two efforts together would generate enough money so that the interest could be used for repairs, while the principle goes untouched.

“The Opera House is a very strong cultural center for Porter County,” Peluso said. “We would like to make sure it stays that way.”

Memorial Opera House was built in 1893 by the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic as a tribute to the county’s Civil War veterans.



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