Wicked Impact

Posted on Feb 1, 2009 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Susan Stockton, President, Fox Cities Performing Arts Center

Appleton’s College Avenue is not quite a yellow brick road, but by the time the Broadway show Wicked completes its 25-day run at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center at the end of this month, the cash will be flowing outward from the P.A.C., along the avenue and elsewhere in the Fox Cities. In a similar engagement two years ago, The Lion King drew more than 88,000 people to the P.A.C. – many of them from far enough away to require a hotel stay and many more of whom left some dollars behind at bars, restaurants and retailers in the Fox Cities.

Susan Stockton, president of the Fox Cities P.A.C. and the person most people credit with bringing blockbuster events like The Lion King and Wicked to the Fox Cities, notes that February’s run of Wicked is bringing “full hotels and an economic bonus for what winter would normally be like here.”

Two years ago, Americans for the Arts released an economic impact study, which concluded that the P.A.C. generates a regional impact of more than $14 million per year, and that doesn’t necessarily reflect the regenerative effect the center has had on other business development. Downtown Appleton has been transformed since the P.A.C. opened in November 2002, says Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc. The rest of the Fox Cities have benefitted as well, adds Lynn Peters, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.

A walk along College Avenue tells the story of downtown’s renaissance over the past six years, with the CopperLeaf Hotel being the most obvious addition to the street scene. More than a dozen new restaurants, bars and retail shops have opened up.

Stephany says the Fox Cities P.A.C. has been critical to “the reemergence of the entertainment district for downtown Appleton. Having a 2,000-seat performing arts center as your downtown centerpiece takes it to a whole new level. We definitely saw that when the entertainment district began to develop around the P.A.C. New businesses came in and businesses that had been downtown for a long time began to renovate to welcome the clientele that would be attending performances at the P.A.C. It started a domino effect of improvement throughout the downtown. It sent a message to the whole community that the city of Appleton cares about downtown. People now look at downtown differently than they did before.”

Property values downtown have increased 23 percent since the P.A.C.’s opening, Stephany adds.

Peters says the P.A.C. adds a “cool factor” for visitors and those considering the Fox Cities as a place to live and work.

“We find that’s true from a tourism perspective especially,” says Peters. “We hear from visitors and from our colleagues at other convention and visitors bureaus as well that they’re surprised about a lot of things when they come to our area. They don’t expect to find such a vibrant downtown area, as well as all the other shopping and entertainment amenities the Fox Cities area has to offer.”

Peters says she and her staff got an object lesson in that when Harmony Inc., an international organization of women barbershop singers, held its 49th annual Contest and Convention at the Fox Cities P.A.C. last November, bringing more than 700 members to downtown Appleton.

“The Harmony Inc. event typically goes to bigger, more metro areas, so I think some might have been a little skeptical about coming here,” says Peters. “Afterwards, we got a surprising flurry of e-mails from people saying they had never heard of the place before, but now they were raving about it. People felt like they stumbled on a hidden gem in the P.A.C. and downtown Appleton.”

Carolyn Pellow, executive secretary of Harmony Inc., which is headquartered in New Brunswick, Canada, agrees.

“Most of my time in Appleton was spent working, but I did find the downtown area pleasant to explore and there were lots of places to go for lunch and supper,” says Pellow. “The hotel was most accommodating in helping us get to the shopping mall and we did spend part of an afternoon there. Comments I have heard have all been very positive about the location and that it is possible we could return in the future. The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center was one of the best venues we have had an opportunity to use for contests in recent years.”

Stockton takes her financial stewardship seriously, but her passion is bringing just the right mix of art, culture and entertainment to build audiences. Stockton believes the P.A.C.’s true vision, mission and value is to provide a venue for expanding and alternative cultural opportunities in the region, as well as “a gathering place for the community.”

It’s a challenge keeping all those balls in the air, because 63 percent of P.A.C. events are “mission-based” and subsidized by philanthropic contributions and by the commercial events that generate a profit.

Stockton is especially proud of the Thrivent Financial Education Series and the Boldt Arts Alive Series, which has brought events like the Soweto Gospel Choir, the African Children’s Choir and the State Ballet Theater of Russia to the Fox Cities P.A.C.

“The Soweto Gospel Choir, for example, sold very well, and that’s the kind of performance a lot of people would never have been exposed to,” says Stockton. “Afterwards, people told us it was one of the best events they had ever attended.”

The big-ticket, multi-week engagements like Wicked play several important roles for the P.A.C., says Stockton. For one, they bring attention and sizzle to the facility and to the region. For another, they help build audiences for other events by attracting people who had never been exposed to the P.A.C.

“Our business model is that we have a blockbuster every other year, and that helps in many ways,” says Stockton. “Those shows cast a very wide net in terms of bringing people in here who had never been here before, and once they’re here, we have a chance to introduce them to performances they might not have known about.”

Stockton says orchestrating the mix of events and balancing the financing is “like a chess board,” trying to be innovative in the P.A.C.’s programming without being elitist or exclusionary.

“We try to present things that people haven’t experienced, but that we think will fit our market,” says Stockton. “For instance, no one in the community told us they wanted to see the Soweto Gospel Choir. However, we saw that the choral tradition in this community was very high and we also knew that whenever we brought in a performance from another country, people want to see it because they have a curiosity about the world. One of the things we try to do with the Arts Alive series is make sure it offers a chance to experience different cultures. The same thing happened with the African Children’s Choir. With most of those kinds of performances we do both daytime and evening performances, because we know the curriculum wants to connect with those cultures. Anything that has youth communicating with youth through the arts is very powerful.”

Mike Weller, president of Miller Electric and chair of the Fox Cities P.A.C. board of directors, says the model seems to be working.

“Susan has been a lightning rod for delivering the kind of entertainment product people appreciate, and hiring her was one of the smartest decisions we made,” says Weller. “The P.A.C. has touched so many lives. We’ve had more than a million people attend events at the P.A.C. since we opened, and more than 21,000 students attend events every year.”

That Stockton ended up managing a performing arts center in Northeast Wisconsin is a bit of a surprise to her, since she grew up in Rhode Island, thought she’d always live and work on the East Coast, and for a time thought she’d be a theatrical director.

The road to Appleton began in high school when an aunt introduced Stockton to theater, including the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., which conducted residency programs at local high schools.

“That was unbelievable, because the actors came out and talked to us, so that gave us a chance to get close to theater and what it was about. That cemented it for me. Acting was not my favorite thing, but I wanted to be involved in theater in some way.”

After earning her master’s degree in theatrical directing at Ohio University, Stockton pondered opportunities to direct in New York, but ended up taking a job at Wright State University as a student activities director. A career was born.

“That job gave me the ability to present all the performing arts – theater, dance, opera, all kinds of music,” says Stockton. “I thought, ‘this is kind of neat.’ If you’re directing a play, it’s the same thing every night, whereas that gave me a huge amount of variety. I also started to see the impact the performing arts have on people, and I learned how to present within a variety of environments and be responsive to different kinds of audiences.”

Career stops at St. Anselm College, Middlebury College and Penn State University gave her experience managing venues. Then the P.A.C.’s board of directors came calling.

“I wasn’t looking for a job and I almost didn’t come for the interview, but it was basically all over when I walked into this building,” says Stockton. “I just said, ‘Oh gosh.’ ”

Stockton says she was attracted by the physical qualities of the Fox Cities P.A.C., as well as by the level of community investment in the facility.

“The board members had all been involved in developing the building and raising the funds, and I was impressed by the fact that money to construct the building came from so many individuals and corporations and the fact that the city was involved,” says Stockton. “I thought that this was a special place with special people, and it was really a testament to a community that was invested in this building and invested in making sure the quality of life here is sustainable and growing.”

The challenge facing Stockton and the P.A.C. today is the one faced by other organizations that rely on philanthropy for all or part of their operations. In a recessionary economy, how free are prospective donors going to be with their contributed dollars? Stockton believes the P.A.C. is on solid ground.

“In a fairly short period of time – we’re in our sixth full season – we’ve built ourselves to the point where we’re operating on an average of 75 percent earned income and 25 percent contributed income. That’s a very healthy model to have,” says Stockton.
In addition, she says, contributed dollars won’t likely dry up simply because of economic concerns.

“We spend a lot of time looking at the history of giving in the United States. Historically, when there have been economic downturns, charitable giving has increased,” says Stockton. “Donors understand the need is greater.

“That said,” she adds, “it’s also important to understand that you’re not going to grow your model in times like these, so let’s be sure that we’re still giving world-class customer service and world-class product, but it’s not a time to expand. It is a time to make sure everything we do continues to be as good as it can be and be mindful of the fact that people are making choices with limited dollars. Whereas before we might have provided a multiplicity of product in a confined time, we now understand that people might be more cautious about how many tickets they will purchase.”

Stockton also challenges the view that the Fox Cities P.A.C., with its corporate backing and high-profile entertainment packages might tend to draw support away from other arts organizations in a battle for limited contributed dollars. She subscribes to the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats.

“People who think the P.A.C. might take away dollars from other organizations do so because they believe there’s limited pie and it can only be divided up so many ways,” says Stockton, “but the reality is that the pie can grow. It’s not infinite, of course, but it’s not necessarily as finite as some people might fear.”

As for the P.A.C. itself, Stockton says it’s too early to tell whether the economy will dramatically affect the center’s financial position.

“We haven’t seen anything that suggests a cause for concern. We’ve actually had a bump in participation for things like the daytime education program. We’ve become the field trip of choice because with gas prices, people are saying let’s do something local,” says Stockton. “The education community understands how important it is to have these kinds of opportunities for students, so their spirits are kept full.

“Our tracking overall is on target. Of course we also encourage and hope that the community will follow giving trends that have been present during hard times. But there’s been no fall-off to this point. The P.A.C. was built right after 9/11. That was a tough time. We’ve also had plant closings. But people understand the need for what we represent. There are challenges every year. Our biggest challenge is looking two years out and seeing what is there going to be on tour and deciding what our mix of programs will be.”