Bellows Falls resident proposes operating Opera House as nonprofit

Opera House
Bellows Falls residents propose a nonprofit to operate the Opera House. Photo provided

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – In a recent Rockingham Selectboard meeting, a plan was proposed to convert the Bellows Falls Opera House over to a nonprofit Board of Directors, a plan that has been endorsed by the Selectboard.

The proposal was created and presented to the board by Bellows Falls resident, artist, and music and arts promoter Charlie Hunter, who feels that through the outline proposed at the meeting the Opera House could be turning a profit within three years. The entity is currently costing Rockingham taxpayers thousands of dollars a year, with the Covid-19 pandemic making the situation even more impactful. Hunter served on the first Bellows Falls Opera House committee.

“In the ’70s, I used to go to the movies at The Falls Cinema, as it was called then,” Hunter recalled. “After the renovations, I was asked to serve on the first committee and have served as a volunteer off and on for 12 years. As I learned about operations of other municipally owned venues, I’ve become convinced that a nonprofit operational entity is the way to go. Other towns whose opera houses are in municipal buildings – such as Claremont, Woodstock, Lebanon – all are operated by nonprofits.”

Hunter indicated that part of the projected plan would be to keep the cost of going to the movie theater low, which has always been a big draw locally. In this new proposal, admission would bump up a dollar; however, the venue’s popular “Triple Up” concession package deal of a medium popcorn, box of candy, and medium soda would remain in place.

Hunter’s proposal also promotes “cashless” transactions as a foundation for the Opera House moving forward successfully, also noting that the aforementioned food concessions – from not only movie showings but all future events – should be the money-making focal point.

Hunter, along with local residents Sean Long and Marty Gallagher, have a plan in motion to create the nonprofit; but because of the current pandemic situation, the nonprofit would probably not be ready to assume operations of the theater until the spring of 2021.

“I joined the endeavor about a month ago, as Charlie was in the early stages of developing the business plan,” said Sean Long, who is a commercial lender at Claremont Savings Bank. “He had asked me to review the financial projections and as a result, I expressed my interest in joining the board. My role is to support the mission and help fine-tune the business model.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Charlie in various capacities over the last 20 years and I enjoy his passion and energy for both the arts and the town of Rockingham. Charlie has everyone’s best interests in mind.”

In the nonprofit proposal, which would include offering first-run movies, and various theatrical productions and music concerts, the entity could project an $18,000 profit by the year 2024. “The Selectboard received our proposal and budget to review and were supportive during the presentation,” Long added. “The obvious challenge is how to factor in the unknowns due to Covid-19. We have good information on the past financial performance of the Opera House, but we are not operating in normal times.”

“The single screen, small town movie theaters are under assault; film studios want to maximize profits and the future for the movie industry lies in streaming [electronically]… and the studios know it,” Hunter said. “Venue capacity may be slashed, and while customers are still going to buy tickets and concessions with cash, the societal trend toward cashless transactions will only increase.”

“We have our nonprofit registration in place, are at work on the bylaws for Rockingham Entertainment Development, and this week we’ll start working on formal language of a lease agreement. The Bellows Falls Opera House is going to be facing enormous challenges, and we have to be on our game in a way we never have before. It’s a big challenge, but we have a great team who truly love the Opera House. It’s pretty exciting,” Hunter concluded.

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