EQUAL TIME

by Gary Hygom,

As the now former executive director of the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, I must say that after the abrupt closing of the theatre, and the termination of all staff, I was disappointed in the Board of Directors’ handling of the situation.

To make matters worse, I now find myself in the unenviable position of having to defend the work and reputation of myself and my staff against blatantly false and misleading comments from that same board. 

Alarm and backlash were generated in the community by the firing of our staff and the board’s stated intention of going in a new direction.

Now, defensively, the board and the mayor are trying to paint a picture of failure and low attendance to justify their actions. I will give you the facts about the progress and financial state of the theatre — all of which are publicly available as Patchogue Theatre is a not-for-profit 501-C(3) corporation.

When the board issued the termination letters, they clearly stated that it was due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Ryan Murphy, the newly elected board chair did not encourage the staff to reapply.

Instead, he told some that they “might” be able to re-apply but they would likely eliminate positions. Murphy further advised staff that they would be restructuring the theatre to a “profitable” model, abandoning not only the strategic plan they created in 2013, but also the new mission statement and five year plan that was developed during the first year of my tenure. 

After clear public interest and concern over the termination of the entire staff, board member and deputy mayor Jack Krieger began to alter the board’s explanation for the closure. Krieger told the Long Island Advance “we were happy with the shows, but attendance was down and that meant less income.”

Nothing could be further from the truth by any measure. Ticket sales were up, and the average number of performances per year increased 128 percent, from 46 nights per year in 2012 – 2016 to 105 nights per year in 2017-2019.

Since 2016, ticket sales have increased by 97 percent, earning $1,964,140 in 2019.  In 2016, 40,405 patrons visited Patchogue Theatre for performances. 93,841 patrons attended in 2019, an increase of 132 percent. This increase in theatre traffic was clear to any patron or business owner in Patchogue Village.

The deputy mayor’s statements are not based on any facts and appear designed to belittle the progress made over the last three years, again in an effort to justify their short-sighted decision. 

According to a GreaterPatchogue article, it was reported that Mayor Paul Pontieri — husband of vice board chair Mary Pontieri — claimed that over the last three years, an endowment that had grown to nearly $1.1 million was “drained” by about two-thirds.

[Editor’s note: The author is quoting a paraphrase, not a direct quote from Pontieri.]

In early March 2020, after much needed expenditures on infrastructure like the marquee, investment in programming and increasing staff, the fund was at $999,000. A $309,000 line of credit was out for show deposits and expenses incurred. In fact, a repayment plan for the borrowed money was in place, with payments already being made monthly.

Understandably, Covid-19 had an adverse effect on the fund.

On April 5, Board chair Ryan Murphy explained in reports that “financial assets suffered, and were down in value about 25 percent.”

The endowment fund was completely invested, by the board, in the stock market. Approximately $300,000 was lost in the stock market in less than two weeks. Yes, the fund was down but not because of programming alone and it certainly wasn’t “drained.”

It is an unfair, and arguably defamatory implication for the board and the mayor to make, and is simply not factual. 

When I became executive director of PTPA, I was tasked with taking what was largely a rental house, and turning it into a performing arts center that would be an artistic success and an economic driver for the village.

In the first year, a five-year plan was developed and presented — outlining how long and how much it would cost to make that transition.

The plan, despite some curveballs, was largely on-target. 

For example, the rent paid by the theatre to the village doubled. For each ticket sold, $2 would now go to the village, instead of $1.

However, pre-existing contracts were still in place with renters that did not reflect that change. Out of the rent we received from each renter, an additional $1 went to the village, which ate into the theatre’s profits. The amount paid to the village has increased five-fold over the past three years. As a result of this rent increase, and increased ticket sales, the village went from receiving an average of $2000 a month ($25,000/year) to $10,000 a month ($120,000/year).

By 2019, the annual rent paid to the village had grown by 380 percent and was on track to be even higher in 2020.

One wonders if this was lost on Mayor Pontieri. 

The one area that was not going well was unearned income. While grants and fundraising organized by the staff were growing, other fundraising efforts were actually stifled by the board.

Fundraisers were cancelled year after year because the board felt the ticket prices were too steep.

Mary Pontieri confirms this in a statement to the Long Island Advance, explaining “when it came to asking friends of the board to come, they weren’t interested. Tickets would have cost $250 a couple.”

Over three years, the board’s fundraising efforts brought in approximately $15,000. As articulated in the board’s own 2013 Strategic Plan, the board needed to lead the fundraising efforts for the theatre.

However, these board members refused to even join the fundraising committee. Yet in spite of the board’s hindrance, grant writing and fundraising efforts by the staff yielded approximately $157,000 in 2019 alone, a 185 percent increase from years prior.

Mayor Pontieri refers to a “bloated” staff as one of the causes for the economic woes at PTPA, with his wife reporting the hiring of a new marketing director, a grants manager and a fundraiser (director of development).

In reality, the theatre already had a full-time marketing director, and the two new hires came on in 2018 and 2019. The first hire came in 2018, a position splitting grants management and assistant marketing duties and the second, a director of development, was hired less than a year ago.

Other staff hires were merely a reorganization to save money. Several part-time box office workers became one full-time box-office manager. A full-time company manager and technical director were hired to replace free-lance hires as a cost-saving measure.

Technically, the full-time staff went from 3 to 8 but it is incorrect to say it is “bloated.” There was some increase, yes, but it was a much-needed re-organization of the workforce. In fact, despite being Suffolk County’s largest performing arts center, we had the smallest full-time staff.

Creating a performing arts center, especially one that is to be an economic driver for the village, takes more than ticket sales. Performing arts centers need to fundraise because they are trying to do more than turn a profit, they are trying to serve the community and appeal to a diverse market.

The typical ratio for successful not-for-profit theatres is to have 60 percent of the expenses covered by ticket sale revenue and 40 percent of the expenses covered by donations and grants.

Patchogue Theatre’s ticket revenue covered 87 percent of expenses, and the staff was working hard to increase ticket sales and charitable giving before the closure. 

The board has decided to change course in how they manage the theatre. As the not-for-profit entrusted by the village to run the facility, it is within their purview to do so.

What has been so troubling is the public smear campaign conducted by Mayor Pontieri, board member and Deputy Mayor Jack Krieger, and vice chair Mary Pontieri.

The mayor appears to be speaking for the theatre and advising in a way that is inappropriate, such as recommending that the theatre “lay off people and close it down.”

Whatever his reasons for getting involved, the information he presents as fact is incomplete and incorrect. I hope the mayor does “an audit going back” as promised in reports.

I know it will support the facts I have presented here.  

As distasteful as it is for me to engage in this type of public debate, I will no longer allow the board of PTPA and/or the mayor to spread incorrect information. T

heir efforts to curtail the backlash cannot come at the expense of the reputations of those that worked so diligently for the theatre nor at the expense of the truth.