When the renovation of Baltimore's Hippodrome began in 2002, the project was widely perceived as the antidote to a variety of urban ills. The arts center would singlehandedly bring about the renaissance of the once-bustling west-side neighborhood. With the Hippodrome reopened, the thought, acording to the Sun, was that Baltimore would no longer lose business from touring Broadway shows that bypassed the city because they were too big to fit into the 1,600-seat Mechanic Theatre.
Some noticed the difference, commenting on the newer establishment's ornate ceiling in the orchestra and its warmer feeling.
But all that gilt paint came at a steep price.
Jeff Daniel, who was brought in to run the arts center in 2009, blames its financial problems on a shortcut taken during the renovations.
In 2003, there wasn't enough money to build a central plant that would provide heating and cooling for the facility. Rather than delay the project, the Hippodrome was connected to city steam and chilled water loops. The utility companies agreed to tack the $4 million cost onto the venue's monthly utility bills.
"Instead of paying the capital costs up front, the debt was put onto the equivalent of a credit card at 101/2 percent interest," Daniel said. "And the balance increases with the Consumer Price Index. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it has prevented us from being as successful as we should be."
The Hippodrome now pays about $1 million a year for utility services. That compares with an average annual utility bill of $180,000 for performing arts centers in the United States, Daniel said, and is nearly twice the $550,000 paid by the largest venue on Broadway.
To pay its bills, Broadway Across America (which has a contract to manage the place until 2022) raised the rent at the 2,286-seat theater. As a result, the Hippodrome has become so expensive that some of the touring Broadway musicals with the biggest box office appeal bypass Baltimore. And companies that do visit perform fewer shows. In the past, musicals stayed at the Hippodrome for an average of two weeks. Now, most shows stay no longer than seven days.
Although Daniel declined to say how much money the arts center has lost, he noted that in the past seven years the utility bill has cost the theater operator $5 million more than a comparable venue.
But high utility bills are not the only obstacle to the Hippodrome's success. The prolonged recession caused many Baltimoreans to cut back on leisure spending. Stalled efforts to redevelop the West Side have resulted in a dearth of neighborhood dining and entertainment options. And competition with theaters in Washington has cost Baltimore the chance to stage some of the most potentially lucrative musicals on tour.
For instance, Billy Elliot, one of the biggest hits of the new century, went on tour last fall. This season, the EJ musical will visit Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Columbus and 13 other cities but not Baltimore.
"Producers will always book their shows in the cities where they can make the most money," Daniel said. "If they can go to a city like Washington, with triple the population of Baltimore and double the average income, that's what they'll do."
Even if "Billy'' does visit the Hippodrome in the next year or two, Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center will have siphoned off a portion of Baltimore's most avid theatergoers.