With a March 15 deadline looming for the city of Billings to take over ownership of the Babcock Theater, an advisory committee has four recommendations for what can be done with the 110-year-old downtown landmark.
Meeting Monday, the Babcock Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee approved a report drafted by City Administrator Tina Volek that includes four possible courses the Billings City Council will hear during its Feb. 21 work session:
- Ask the committee, which includes four city council representatives, to continue exploring options for the use of the theater, which is at Second Avenue North and N. Broadway.
- Ask the committee to negotiate with Kim Olsen, who currently manages the theater for Babcock LLC, to continue managing the theater for a year, while seeking a nonprofit organization to ultimately take over theater operations.
- Instruct city staff to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for the sale of the theater.
- Instruct city staff to issue an RFP for an outside organization to manage the facility for five or more years.
The committee has met seven times and has tried to find either a purchaser or a group to operate the theater. Volek said that within the past 10 days, an out-of-town church group has expressed interest in purchasing the Babcock. But such a purchase, committee members noted, would keep the theater off the tax rolls.
In addition, Volek said, a Spokane-based group has expressed interest in leasing the theater.
According to Volek’s report, the Babcock Theater has no debt. For the past 20 years, “it has been operated sporadically,” she wrote, “with events ranging from ballet recitals to boxing.”
The Babcock has recently upgraded its roof and ceiling as well as electrical, plumbing, fire sprinkling and heat pump systems. But it does not own sound or lighting systems, a stage curtain, a removable floor suitable for dance troupes and rigging. All of those would be needed, according to the report, to make the theater marketable to more groups.
Those improvements could cost $1 million or more.
According to Volek’s report, 60 events were held at the Babcock in 2014, with 36 the following year and about 26 in 2016. The theater currently rents for $1,000 per night.
Even after March 15, the city still won’t own the Green Room, a dressing, kitchen, restroom and laundry facility in the basement under another piece of the Babcock property. When the building was divided into condominiums, the space was assigned to the unit atop the Green Room, Volek wrote, and it would need to be purchased or leased from Babcock LLC for use when any event occurs.
Constructed in 1907, the Babcock became a movie theater in 1920. In 1935, the theater burned and was rebuilt in the art deco style seen today. It has seating for 760.
On March 15, the Babcock will become the third downtown entertainment facility owned by the city. The Alberta Bair Theater and Moss Mansion are both city-owned and are both operated as nonprofit entities.
Two other theaters operate in Billings — the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts and the Billings Studio Theater on the Rocky Mountain College campus.
Billings is home to a number of other entertainment venues.
Committee members said they met with Alberta Bair Theater management and with the Billings Cultural Partners to gauge their interest in managing the Babcock.
Cultural Partners — museums, theaters and other culturally-related venues — told the committee the Babcock could serve as a smaller venue for outside groups that want an intimate performing site or for lectures, movies and other events.
The Alberta Bair management said it wasn’t financially possible to manage the Babcock along with its own, larger venue, according to Volek.
As part of the 2016-17 budget, the City Council allocated $20,000 for a Babcock study. That money has not been touched and could be used to pay utility costs for the coming months, according to the report.
The real work will begin with the council's next work session, committee members agreed.
“We are going to need to measure the council to see what their commitment might be,” said Larry Brewster, a council member who chairs the ad-hoc committee. “We’ll need to frame it in a way that gives it a better chance to succeed.”