RENOVATIONS A WICKED SUCCESS

With musical, Proctors to reach attendance goal earlier than expected

TOM KEYSER STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SCHENECTADY -- When Proctors completed its $30 million renovation in 2007, it set a goal to attract 500,000 people per year to its facilities in downtown Schenectady by 2012. Early in the run of "Wicked," which opens tonight, it will meet that goal -- three years sooner than expected.


"If you measure success across all aspects -- bottom-line economics, meeting expectations, satisfaction of audience -- we've succeeded incredibly, even in a very tough environment," said Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors. "The goal of becoming a people magnet, we've met -- and exceeded. And that's pretty cool."


In the process, Proctors has spurred development and expansion throughout downtown Schenectady. Ray Gillen, chairman of the Metroplex Development Authority, which promotes economic activity in Schenectady County, said when he shows potential investors the community, his first stop is Proctors.


"It has been a catalyst for a lot of additional development in our downtown," Gillen said. "In fact, the whole area around the main core of downtown we now call the Proctor block."


Across State Street from Proctors, what Gillen believes is the largest downtown development project in the Capital Region is under way. It's the $25 million-plus, 200,000-square-foot City Center project, a mix of office and retail that will include a new YMCA.


And several blocks away, what Gillen believes is the largest office-complex construction in the region is taking place. It's Golub Corp.'s $22 million, 240,000-square-foot Price Chopper headquarters.


Since 2004, when Metroplex became involved in downtown development, Gillen said, "We've had a steady stream of investments and activities, including new employers. Young employees and tech firms and fast-growing companies want to link up and be around arts and entertainment."


Five years ago, with its renovation barely under way, Proctors attracted about 150,000 people per year, Morris said. It had one theater open 60 to 70 times per year.


Now, with three theaters and a wide variety of events, many of them free, Proctors is open nearly every day. It offers "easily 600 events" per year, Morris said.


In addition to its familiar offerings of concerts and big-name plays, Proctors holds a "green" farmer's market, shows live opera from the La Scala opera house in Italy and shows movies, including Iwerks films, a competitor of IMAX. It hosts 50 to 60 conferences per year and numerous parties. Before or after nearly all of the 32 "Wicked" performances, businesses have reserved space for private parties.


Proctors provides space for the city and other agencies to hold public hearings. It shows events such as President Obama's inauguration and the Super Bowl on its large movie screen. It attracts about 60,000 kids per year for shows and camps. Proctors used to be closed in the summer. Now it offers eight summer camps on such topics as jazz, chess and filmmaking.


In July, the League of Historic American Theatres presented Proctors its 2009 outstanding historic theater award for "exemplary vision and dedication to its community."


"It's not the award itself, although that was nice," Morris said. "It's the fact that around the country peers looked at us and went, 'Damn good job, guys.' It was impressive enough that the organization is bringing its annual conference here in the summer of 2011. That's just a good thing for the region."


As part of its renovation, Proctors built a power plant to supply electricity, heat and air conditioning to its own facilities and others on the block.


"It was a goal that it would reduce our costs, reduce our neighbors' costs and reduce pollution -- all of which has happened," Morris said. "That's a big part of what we did, really. It's a big piece of the puzzle.


"And it's an unusual piece of the puzzle. I think we're the only theater in the world -- I've asked, I've looked -- that has its own power plant that sells heating and cooling to others. And I think we're the only performing arts center in the world with an Iwerks theater. Most of those go to museums and those kind of facilities."


But the most significant aspect of Proctors' plan was expanding its backstage area, building new dressing rooms and updating equipment. That allowed it to attract the big shows that powered its success and boosted confidence in the economic viability of downtown.


Proctors plans to build on that success, especially its two month-long productions -- "The Phantom of the Opera" in February 2006 and now "Wicked."


"We're a new market for that sort of production, and we're on the small side," Morris says. "It's one thing to go to Cleveland and play for a month, and it's another thing to go to the Capital Region.


"So there's been a level of hesitancy. Doing well with 'Phantom' mattered. Doing great with 'Wicked' will help seal the deal. We've got some announcements coming in the winter for next year that will be pretty cool."


Tom Keyser can be reached at 454-5448 or at tkeyser@timesunion.com.


BOX:


By the numbers


5 years ago Proctors attracted about 150,000 people. This year it will attract more than 500,000.


5 years ago Proctors offered about 50 shows and 85 to 90 performances on its Mainstage. Now it offers about 150 shows and about 200 performances on its Mainstage. In five years ticket sales have tripled.


5 years ago Proctors' annual operating budget was $3.5 million. This year it is $15 million.


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A8 What's behind those "Wicked" ticket prices