Downtown arts venue needs spotlight

The group Satinwood will bring its tribute show, 'Wild Taxi,' featuring the music of  Cat Stevens and Harry Chapin, to downtown's Milford Performance Center Sept. 22.

It promises to be a great performance, according to Steve Cooper, director of the Milford Performance Center, who said that in addition to more shows already scheduled, he’s got some big productions in the works.

The only problem, Cooper said, is that not enough people know about the shows, or know about the Milford Performance Center itself for that matter.

Cooper attended this month’s Board of Aldermen’s meeting to ask the city for a little help promoting the venue, or to give him a little more leeway in promoting it himself.

A local photographer, Cooper formed the non-profit Milford Performance Center early last year to bring big-name musical groups and other events and performances to the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, which is located inside of the city-owned Parsons Government Center.

Once the Milford High School auditorium — before the high school closed and was turned into the government center in the 1980s — the large theater seats 970 and hosts some big Milford events, like the mayor’s inauguration.

But Cooper believed the auditorium and stage in the heart of downtown Milford was underused and could be a whole lot more for the city, and that’s why he created the Milford Performance Center, which books shows and rents the auditorium to hold them.

In April, resident Paul Perry wrote to the Milford Mirror about his surprise at finding this theater hidden within the city’s government center.

Perry saw the band Cold Hard Cash perform there and said the show was fantastic: “The sound system was great and they serve wine, beer and other refreshments at a reasonable price,” he wrote. But, he added, “I have spoken with a dozen individuals that live in town and not one of them knew that this type of entertainment existed at this location.”

Cooper said he’s heard the same from other people in town. He told the aldermen last week that he plans to have more than 20 shows in his second season, and draw an average of 350 people to downtown Milford. He said statistics show that people who attend this kind of event spend $37 each outside the venue, at restaurants and shops, and said that means his shows are a $250,000 economic boost for city businesses.

“We are in our infancy,” Cooper said. “However, we are a diamond in the rough and in a position to be a major reason why people come to Milford all year round.”

Lack of signage is a problem, Cooper told the aldermen, because people don’t know where to find the shows.

Cooper said that eventually he would like approval for a permanent sign outside the Veterans Memorial Auditorium that indicates it is also the home of the Milford Performance Center. For now he would like the okay to use temporary vinyl banner signs between the front pillars two weeks before each show for marketing purposes and so people know they have gotten to the right place when they arrive. He’d also like ‘Milford Performance Center’ added to three way-finding signs already located in the city.

Cooper is also hoping to get a room at the Parsons Government Center to use for equipment storage and ticket sales, and a liquor permit for the property so he doesn’t have to apply for a temporary permit for each show. He said he can get only a limited number of temporary liquor permits per year.

Jim Amann of International Government Strategies is working with Cooper to secure some of the things he wants, and wrote a letter to Mayor Ben Blake on his behalf.

“The Milford Performance Center receives no funding from the City of Milford,” Amann wrote. “Its staff consists entirely of volunteers. As you are aware, the Milford Performance Center itself is a non-profit entity. However, the costs to produce a production are astronomical. They include venue rent per show, equipment storage and space rental, hiring union wage custodians, police and fire personnel, liability insurance costs, state licenses, marketing and advertising, phone, internet, instrument purchase and upkeep and much more.”

For now, Amann said, the city can really help out by approving signs and the use of the storage room inside the Parsons Government Center.

Amann heard back from Mayor Blake, who encouraged him to work with the Milford Arts Council, which also holds performances in downtown Milford, and the local veterans group, for whom the auditorium is dedicated, to first make sure they are all in agreement on plans for signage.

“I am absolutely supportive of having shows and events in downtown Milford to support the local downtown scene with its restaurants and shops, and I think that if we have entertainment down there on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night that it can only increase the vibrancy of downtown,” Blake said. “I think that the fact that we have a 1,000-person auditorium right in the heart of the downtown, accessible by train, by boat, by highway and by foot, that’s something special — not a lot of towns have that.

“But,” Blake added, “I want to make sure all the local stakeholders are working together on this.”