GRAND RAPIDS — Convention & Visitors Bureau President Steve Wilson said the city will have another season of Broadway-quality entertainment starting in September because Harvey Gainey felt the show had to go on.
He gave credit to the founder and owner of Gainey Transportation Services Inc. for the most recent revival of the Broadway Theater Guild, a nonprofit that brings professional touring shows to Grand Rapids.
Wilson said Gainey turned the debt-ridden past of the guild into a bright and promising future by finding value where no one else thought to look. He explained that Gainey largely accomplished the feat by taking over as chairman of the board last year and recruiting people who wanted to be actively involved with the guild.
The new board raised money to pay down portions of the debt and then created payment plans with creditors. He said Gainey also hired a marketing firm that found the Broadway Theater Guild name to have a lot of equity, and that the live shows it presents bring a lot of vitality to the city.
“We’re very pleased to have a leader like Harvey Gainey,” said Wilson, a member of the guild board, to members of the Convention and Arena Authority.
BTG Vice President of Sales and Production Jack Lane echoed that sentiment. He said the guild, which just finished its 113th production and its 904th show, has been through some rough financial times since its inception in 1988, when the group took over the booking of shows from Ken Shaw Productions.
But he also said that the BTG has been in the black for the last ten shows, thanks to the work done by the new board headed by Gainey.
“We’re ready to go for the next season,” said Lane.
Guild Marketing Director Jay Silha added that the organization should break even for the upcoming season, which has six productions set for DeVos Hall starting with a six-day run of Rob Becker’s “Defending the Caveman” on Sept. 24.
When the guild approached Gainey, they told him the organization was about to go under. The guild was about $465,000 in debt then, and was very close to not going forward with its two final productions of the season.
“We’ve come a long, long way, but we have a lot more work to do,” said Gainey.
As soon as Gainey came aboard in October, he started a fundraiser that netted $300,000, cash that has helped to reduce the guild’s debt to $45,000. In addition, and rather ironically, the drive for the much-needed funds also produced an indirect consequence. It raised ticket revenues for this season, which ended with the Tony-award-winning “Blast” on Sunday.
“Once we started publicizing the situation we were in and telling people what we needed, we actually created kind of a marketing effect. So our last four shows have sold much better than the shows have in a long time,” said Gainey.
“All of our other bills are paid up to date right now, and we actually have a few dollars in the bank. So we feel pretty good about the progress we’ve made,” he added. “But we need to break even on the six shows next year. Then we need to have another significant fundraiser to kind of help us get over the hump.”
Silha noted that the guild can’t cover its costs from ticket revenue alone — it needs a cash injection and needs to make its operations a bit more efficient. He added that BTG subscribers renew their season tickets at an 80 percent rate and the guild draws showgoers from 16 counties and a few outstate markets.
The guild is the city’s largest arts tenant, with an average of 48 performances each season at DeVos Hall. Those performances bring about 100,000 ticket buyers into downtown each year to spend $1 million.
Lane said one difficulty the guild has in attracting touring companies here is getting a full week of performances scheduled at DeVos Hall, the performing arts center it shares with the opera, ballet and symphony. Silha said SMG, the building’s manager, was working cooperatively with the guild to get the organization the best dates possible.
“Rich (MacKeigan) and the gang at SMG do a great job. We work closely with them and we have a great working relationship with the union, the stagehands and the vendors that we work with at DeVos,” he said.
As for Gainey, why did he willingly lift the guild’s problems onto his shoulders? Because he is a fan — of the arts and the city.
“I think Grand Rapids is a big enough city that we don’t need to be losing any of the arts, and I think the Broadway Theater Guild shows are very important for our area. We’re a big city now,” he said. “And I got involved because I care about the city and the area more than anything else. And I do like the performing arts.”