The special theater proposal review committee of the Stratford town council has recommended that Elm Street Theater Co., a group of companies and individuals with a range of theater development experience, be approved as developer and operator of Stratford\u2019s Shakespeare Theatre. The conglomeration includes principals from Lockwood and Mead, a Greenwich real estate development company; Reid & Reige, a Hartford law firm with specialists in nonprofit organizations; GTL Construction of White Plains, N.Y.; architect Mark Schulman of Development Design PLLC; Theater Projects Consultants for strategic planning and theater design; Brian Wishneff & Associates, specializing in tax credit financing; Suzanne Cahill, chairman of Wall Street Theater Co. of Norwalk and Milford and a media and entertainment entrepreneur; and Bob Kennedy, an event producer and executive director at Wall Street Theater Co. Cahill is the owner of RedMat Media in Milford, which publishes Milford Living magazine, and she serves on Milford\u2019s economic development commission. She is a former alderman of Milford, and she serves on the board of the United Way. She describes herself as one who has worked on or developed \u201cmany, many boards and nonprofit organizations\u201d and is \u201ca successful businessperson.\u201d Similar project Cahill is leading a similar group of partners in renovating and reopening the former Globe Theater in Norwalk. She is programming for that theater now, which is scheduled to open as the Wall Street Theater in September 2015. Wall Street is \u201ca different area with different opportunities,\u201d Cahill said, but it is similar to Stratford in that the taxpayers are not expected to carry the burden of getting the theater reopened. Cahill said she found the state of Connecticut interested in supporting the Norwalk theater, because \u201cthey see it as an economic driver\u201d for the Norwalk area. The state provided a grant of $1.5 million so the nonprofit set up by Cahill could acquire the building, which it has done. She said the group also obtained \u201cHUD 108\u201d federal financing, which is for projects that are expected to create economic development. In Stratford Elm Street Theater Co. describes itself as \u201ca not for profit corporation created for the purpose of the redevelopment and operation of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre \u2026 to oversee the construction, renovation, maintenance, and operation of the [theater]. Theater management will consist of the programmatic administration of a performing arts theater, providing the town of Stratford a live venue to host professional performing arts as well as community performing arts.\u201d Finance is key Larry Ciccarelli, who chaired the five-person proposal review committee that reviewed the five proposals that were submitted to the town for redeveloping and operating the Shakespeare Theatre, said\u00a0it was his expectation that the Town Council would not approve of a company without a source of funding. \u201cWe picked this group because we thought they had the best financing in depth,\u201d said Ciccarelli. The financing element that is key to Elm Street\u2019s plan, in Ciccarelli\u2019s view, is to generate cash from the sale of tax credits that it expects to obtain from state and federal government. Tax credits are apparently available for rehabilitating historic buildings, and the sale of the credits is a financing mechanism not uncommon with nonprofits, Ciccarelli said. \u201cThey have buyers already\u201d for the tax credits, he said. \u201cHaving a list [of funding sources], and having a plan to get funding from the sources are two different things,\u201d said Ciccarelli. \u201cIt\u2019s the immediacy of funding that gave [Elm Street] the upper hand.\u201d While tax credits may be marketable and a reliable source of cash, Elm Street will need to apply for them and obtain them before having them to sell. Obtaining tax credits \u201cis labor consuming, not time consuming,\u201d said Frank Farricker, who is the developer in the Elm Street partnership. Elm Street\u2019s plan calls for obtaining federal historic tax credits, state historic tax credits, film tax credits, and \u201cgreen\u201d (environmental) tax credits totaling about $11 million. He said the process of obtaining the credits might take a year. \u201cWe believe we are totally in compliance with the standards to be issued tax credits,\u201d Farricker said. \u201cWe are a strong benefit to the state and the country.\u201d \u201cNothing\u2019s perfect, and there are no guarantees,\u201d Ciccarelli said, \u201cbut Elm Street is further along with their financing.\u201d A principal with the Stratford Stage Group, David Reed, who also submitted a proposal to operate the Shakespeare Theatre, said that his group submitted a $15-million letter of credit, which was for immediate use. Loan for predevelopment Another part of Elm Street\u2019s financing plan is to obtain a loan of $750,000 for predevelopment start-up expenses, and its plan calls for asking the town of Stratford to provide the loan. Cahill and Farricker said they have an alternative source for the start-up funds if the town does not provide them, and Ciccarelli said that during the proposal review process he advised Elm Street not to expect the town to provide the loan. Stratford Mayor John Harkins is on the record saying numerous times that taxpayers do not want to pay for the operation of the Shakespeare Theatre. Said Cahill, \u201cWe are ready to take responsibility\u201d for the start-up costs, but \u201cthe request [of the town] stands.\u201d \u201cThis is a loan, not a grant,\u201d Cahill said. \u201cAll in, all out \u2014 $750,000 and the town gets a $13-million fully functioning theater.\u201d \u201cThe town should want to do it,\u201d said Cahill. \u201cThe town and the people should want to take ownership in the project.\u201d Facility Elm Street is planning to use the revenue from the sale of tax credits for rehabilitating the current theater building to its original 1,500-seat capacity. Getting the building renovated is \u201cfirst and foremost,\u201d said Cahill. \u201cThe facility has to be what it needs to be for the programming.\u201d She said it will be designed for multiple and various uses. Some sections may be able to be cordoned off, creating smaller spaces. \u201cWe will figure it out so it makes the most sense,\u201d she said. Arts Consultant Group, which studied the feasibility of a sustainable, re-opened Shakespeare Theatre for the town, advised that a theater of 600 to 800 seats would serve the market well. When asked what type of show would fill the house of 1,500 seats,\u00a0Elm Street Executive Director Bob Kennedy said, \u201cA lot of different styles of entertainment would do that.\u201d Added Cahill, \u201cGood marketing and good business will fill the house.\u201d When asked to describe the unmet market demand for another theater in this region, Cahill said that the other theaters in the region are in business because of the support from their communities. \u201cWhat we have [in Stratford] is people who want a theater,\u201d Cahill said. She pointed also to local theater groups that could use a new home, education opportunities for teachers and students, and New York City theatrical groups that could come out to Stratford. Mix and timing The variety of types of entertainment that Elm Street expects to offer is spelled out in its proposal as about 25% concerts, 20% professional plays, 18% films, 10% comedy or dance, plus the annual Shakespeare Festival, community theater uses, and other community activities. Shakespeare productions might be as high as 25% of the entertainment mix, Cahill estimated. Ciccarelli said he was pleased to see a lot of space on the calendar dedicated to community events and rentals. Elm Street\u2019s proposal envisions the Shakespeare Theatre opening as early as mid to late 2016, after a year of predevelopment and a year of renovation\/construction. A board of directors would be developed largely from the Stratford community, Cahill said, and the \u201cvery important\u201d role of artistic director would filled after the board was in place. Strategy Beyond tax credits and a loan for starting up, Elm Street explains its business strategy as including support from the town and private investment and then converting to \u201cdevelopment and donor base\u201d to cover any shortfall between revenues and expenses. \u201cThere is a subset of people in Fairfield County who are supportive of theater and theater renovations,\u201d Farricker said. \u201cThere is real interest in historic theaters.\u201d Farricker and Cahill said they anticipate their annual operating costs at around $2 million. They did not say that they have a number in mind for an annual operating deficit, which would need to be covered by a donor base. Part of their overall strategy is to be \u201clow debt.\u201d The success of artistic endeavors is often determined by the amount of debt carried by the operator, Farricker said. Theaters with high debt have to charge more and sometimes the ticket prices are \u201cout of market,\u201d he said. Low debt allows for some experimental productions and allows for the company to \u201ctake some risks.\u201d The role of the town What Elm Street Theater needs from the town of Stratford, according to Farricker, is \u201csupport of the community and getting them in the door and making it part of their life.\u201d From the town\u2019s elected officials, \u201cwe need them to be partners, cheerleaders, to work with us to communicate and show that this will be successful,\u201d said Farricker. Stratford Arts Commission Chairman Ed Goodrich said, \u201cThe town owns the property and the building, so they are almost like a partner. How the town is going to engage in the process is the real question now. They need to engage the process.\u201d Cahill added that what her group needs from residents is for them to let their council representative know they support the theater project. She asserts what she calls a \u201cprinciple of economic development\u201d \u2014 that for every $1 spent at the theater another $46 will be spent in the local economy. Cahill said her group is ready to meet with the council during its deliberations if members so wish. \u201cThe theater is part of the heart of Stratford,\u201d Cahill said. \u201cThe residents are going to be so excited. The time is right, and the people are right.\u201d For more information and a copy of the full proposal submitted by Elm Street Theater Co., see\u00a0ElmStreetTheater.com.