WORCESTER – Ten years after a massive renovation, the Hanover Theatre is still welcoming crowds to shows but also branching out to new ventures.
The nonprofit theater, formally known as the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, is looking to its conservatory classes, rental income from a future restaurant, fees to manage a small downtown performance space and maybe longer runs for Broadway shows to secure the theater’s financial health, according to President and Chief Executive Troy R. Siebels.
The endeavor matters because even though attendance at the 2,300-seat theater in Worcester’s downtown has grown over the past 10 years, the organization still must pay off about $2 million in debt from its renovation while also setting aside enough money to tackle annual maintenance for a theater that dates to 1904.
“I think that as a theater, there is still some room for growth, but I don't think it's going to be astronomical growth,” Mr. Siebels said last week while seated in his second-floor office in the theater’s conservatory wing, a room that looks out over Main Street. “I think the bigger room for growth is broadening revenue streams.”
It’s a remarkable position for a showplace once so unloved it was broken into movie theaters, then shuttered. In 2002, a small group of supporters led by nonprofit executive Edward P. Madaus and lawyer Paul J. Demoga set a goal to buy, renovate and reopen the theater as a venue for traveling Broadway productions and other performances.
The project cost almost $32 million, helped along by donations from local philanthropists and Hanover Insurance Group Inc., a property and casualty insurer that gave the theater its name. Construction workers tore off the back wall of the building and rebuilt it to create a bigger stage. New seats were installed. Décor was restored.
Since the opening in March of 2008, the Hanover has hosted comedians, singers, storytellers, actors and annual holiday performances of “The Nutcracker” ballet. Touring Broadway productions have ranged from classics such as “42nd Street” to newer fare such as “Kinky Boots.” Closer to home, the theater has also booked college and high school commencement ceremonies and local dance center recitals.
The Hanover now books performances about 180 days a year. A record 214,755 visitors attended events at the Hanover during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017. About 80 percent of guests come from outside Worcester. Ticket sales hit new heights of about $7.9 million in fiscal 2017.
The theater calculates that nearly 1.6 million people have attended shows at the Hanover since 2008.
“I had no question that we’d make it based on the demographics of Worcester,” said Mr. Madaus. “We just never had any appropriate place for a Broadway show.”
In 2014, the theater purchased a 22,000-square-foot neighboring building at 551 Main St. for $1.1 million and remodeled it into studios, offices and a ground-floor shell for a restaurant. Since January 2017, hundreds of children and adults have attended dance, acting and other classes at the facility. Class fees range from $200 for nine-week baby-and-caregiver music course to $900 for three-week teen performance classes.
The theater also secured a five-year lease with Boston restaurateur Chris Rassias, who is expected to open a dining establishment with a 1920s America theme later this year. The working name for the restaurant, Mr. Rassias has said, is Josephine, after Josephine Baker, the iconic entertainer who rose to fame during the Roaring ’20s.
The theater has mostly posted surpluses over its first decade, including a $92,776 surplus on revenue of $9.8 million during the 2017 fiscal year.
Mr. Siebels said the theater must make enough money to pay for about $250,000 in repairs annually. In 2017, it set aside $300,000 for that work. Financial records show the theater did not add money to that account in 2016 and 2015.
“We’re still not putting away enough money into reserves to be able to maintain the buildings in the long term, but we are investing in them in the short term,” Mr. Siebels said. “We've been spending the dollars that we need to spend to maintain them.”
At the same time, the theater is paying off money borrowed in recent years and making plans to put entertainment outside its front door on a proposed plaza the city would create by shifting Southbridge Street.
A “theater district” campaign to raise $10 million by 2020 for outdoor programming and the conservatory has already secured about $8.3 million, and theater officials believe they will be able to secure the rest.
“There is a plan for raising that money. We’re pretty darn close to it, and it’s working,” said Dr. Marianne E. Felice, chairman of the theater’s board. “I think it’s because the theater is touching so many lives in Central Mass.”
That connection to the community could give the theater another revenue stream. The Worcester Cultural Coalition has agreed to develop a small “black box” theater in the former Telegram & Gazette building at 20 Franklin St., and the Hanover has signed on to manage the space for a fee, according to Mr. Siebels.
Erin Williams, cultural development officer for Worcester and executive director of the Worcester Cultural Coalition, said the theater has been a creative catalyst in Worcester, complementing activity in the city and “putting their money where their mouth is.”
“Its spirit of collaboration has been very strong and the ability to dream big and to act, follow through on those dreams and bring a reality to what the community needs and has asked for,” Ms. Williams said.
Yet if the theater has won praise from private and public officials over its first 10 years, its activity has not been powerful enough to singlehandedly transform its neighborhood.
“Even when the theater was first getting developed, there was always the hope that it was going to be more than that, that it was going to be game-changer down there,” said Julie A. Holstrom, a senior project manager for the Worcester Business Development Corp., the nonprofit economic development agency that is pushing for transformation in the theater’s neighborhood. However, Ms. Holstrom said, “some of the properties in that area are or were under ownership that weren’t interested in outwardly facing in their community. I think we’re starting to see that change.”
A two-story building nearby at 526 Main St. was anchored by a pawn shop – not exactly the type of merchant envisioned for a theater district – until the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency bought it in September 2017 for $800,000 and sought proposals for its renovation. A spokeswoman for the agency said it is reviewing proposals.
MG2 Group of Quincy, which has redeveloped several apartment buildings near the theater under the name of the Grid District, bought another dilapidated property at 517 Main St. on March 1 for $450,000 and announced plans to redevelop it as apartments.
Now the WBDC is working with theater district property owners to propose a business improvement district. If approved, the city would assess fees from the neighborhood’s property owners, on top of taxes, to provide additional services in the area, such as extra snow removal during winters, landscaping and banners.
The city’s plan to create a new plaza in front of the theater also aims to bring more life to the neighborhood as part of a project to improve Main Street, said Michael E. Traynor, Worcester’s chief development officer.
“The whole idea is just to bring more activity there, bring more people there during the day,” Mr. Traynor said.
Ultimately, according to Mr. Siebels, the theater will need to excel at basics to succeed.
“I think we need to just keep our eye on the ball making sure the experience at the theater is top-notch,” he said. “I think it has to be exceptionally good customer service in everything from parking the car to walking into the theater and being greeted at the front door to a good-quality show on the stage. I think that's the foundation of everything we're doing.”