DOVER — About 40 representatives of arts organizations, nonprofit groups, businesses and city government gathered Thursday in an informal meeting to plan the reopening of the shuttered Schwartz Center for the Arts.
Dover City Council President Tim Slavin, who outlined the community-driven plan in September, said the energy of those present exceeded his expectations.
And while a reopening celebration had been eyed for May 4, which is the Friday of the Dover Days Festival in 2018, he said leaders aren’t ruling out a earlier timeframe.
“I would be thrilled if we could beat that deadline,” he said.
The grassroots effort to reopen the three-story, brick building originally constructed in 1904 included representatives from the United Way, Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement, Delaware Division of the Arts, Biggs Museum, Delaware Friends of Folk, Kent County Theater Guild, Children’s Theatre as well as the Downtown Dover Partnership and more.
“It was a great group of people,” Mr. Slavin said, that included a cross section of individuals, with accountants, lawyers, local business owners and a group of current Schwartz board members.
“They were welcoming to the energy, and I think we all just kind of agreed, let’s just get on with version 2.0 of what the Schwartz Center is going to be.”
Efforts will focus on four goals: governance (what the governing structure is), finance (fundraising and development), operations (what’s involved in hosting events), and talent and booking.
Members, who signed up for groups Thursday, are tasked with identifying key questions that need to be asked and answered, Mr. Slavin said, in order to provide an agenda for the Nov. 14 charette, or structured planning exercise. At that daylong event, invited participants, likely 75 to 100 people who are representative of the community and voices important to a performing arts center, will sift through ideas and devise a plan.
Keeping a cap on participants, Mr. Slavin said, “allows us to break into small groups … and come back at the end of the day and report out the findings.”
To date, no money has been spent on planning the reopening, he said.
“It exceeded my expectations, just in the number and breadth and depth of talent that we had. The ideas and the energy are there. They’re there for the asking in this community and everyone stepped forward last night,” Mr. Slavin said.
Chanda Jackson and Sheila Bravo, among the participants, echoed that sentiment, both noting the passion present in the room.
All agreed, it’s about putting that energy into action and devising a plan that is sustainable for operating the South State Street venue, which closed June 30.
Ms. Bravo, executive director of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement, which offers consultant services, training, advocacy and research to members, including the Schwartz, said she reached out to Mr. Slavin to offer expertise. Prior to joining the alliance in 2015, she worked for the Rehoboth Art League. “I really believe arts are a vital part of any community,” she said. “And to lose (the Schwartz) would be a great loss.”
She said the diversity of the people and their professional disciplines who showed up on a Thursday evening to commit to helping was impressive.
“I think the passion is clearly there,” she said. “There are a lot of good thinkers that are going to be part of the process.”
She will be a part of the group working on the governance model.
She noted that the Schwartz’s financial problem isn’t unique; many nonprofits in Delaware are faced with shrinking funding. “We have been working with some of our members about how do they think through their strategies so they can be sustainable,” she said.
Engaging the community is critical, she said, “because ultimately it’s the community that has to support this organization.”
Chanda Jackson, community engagement specialist with NCALL, and a member of the Capital School District Board of Education, agreed.
“I’m definitely interested and have a vested interest in Dover as a lifelong resident. I think it’s important that we try to keep the Schwartz Center open. A lot of times you hear residents talk about how there’s not much to do here in Dover,” she said.
Focusing on arts is a piece of NCALL’s Restoring Central Dover initiative that was missing. Helping bring back the Schwartz is a two-fold revitalization goal that benefits the arts venue and the greater community, as well as the residents her organization is seeking to help.
“It’s just another way to reach the people in the community to get them involved and help them become more prideful of the community in which they live,” she said. “Once we have residents who take ownership in the pride of their community, then we can begin to make some changes.”
“I’m really excited to be a part of the committee,” she said. “It was really nice to see the community come together and work on something positive.”
She will serve on the talent and booking committee, and looks forward to seeking input from residents on what they want hosted at the venue.
While Mr. Slavin has led the discussions to date, he emphasized that reopening the Schwartz is not a city project. As do Wesley College and Delaware State University, which jointly own the building, the city has a stake in seeing it thrive, but not undertaking theater operations.
Wesley President Robert Clark and David Sheppard, general counsel for Delaware State University, said in interviews this summer that while both institutions are committed to leasing the building to an arts group, they were not in positions to continue subsidizing the venue.
Since those colleges stepped in more than a decade ago to aid the nonprofit board running the Schwartz, the two institutions have invested at least $4 million in the center, according to Mr. Sheppard.
In addition, from 2007 to 2015, DSU and Wesley contributed $120,000 annually to the Schwartz.
The Schwartz’s closure this summer wasn’t the first time the stage went dark in the 550-seat theater. After decades of operation, the original Capital Theater closed in 1982. It reopened in 2001 after an aggressive, capital campaign driven by the Friends of the Capitol Theater, raised $3.3 million to renovate and modernize the building.
Funds included $1.3 million from the General Assembly and $1.2 million in grants from philanthropic groups, including the Longwood Foundation and Delaware Community Foundation.
Mr. Slavin said while many issues must be figured out, a common theme was clear.
“One thing we did come away with: There’s always an option to simply do nothing. We agreed that the ‘do nothing option’ is not an option. This community wants this building back open. It’s good for quality of life,” he said. “It was really a wonderful moment for Dover. We’re just going to keep the momentum going.”