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Venture Theatre board member Joan McCracken

Venture Theatre board member Joan McCracken, center, along with members of the board and staff, holds a news conference at the theater.

It’s been months since Venture Theatre paid its biggest creditors, but its board of directors insists it will get the theater's finances in order and avoid an early swan song for the nonprofit.

“We will be meeting with everyone, with all the creditors, and we will pay it off,” said Joan McCracken, a Venture board member. “We’re determined to move forward.”

Venture, which offers theater opportunities for children and adults, is asking for public help in paying off $130,000 in debt, possibly more, including an expected $60,000 in payroll taxes owed to the IRS. The board would like to raise a substantial percentage of the deficit by month’s end. The weight of what’s owed is too heavy to drag into another performance year.

“If we can’t meet out current expenses, how can we move forward?” McCracken said. “As a volunteer organization, we can’t keep doing this.”

The tied-to-the-train tracks scenario became public following a recent audit. The discovery of the mounting debt prompted the dismissal of the theater's director, Robert Wood.

Wood declined to speak to The Billings Gazette.

The theater’s board, even as it cobbles together a plan to keep the 20-year-old community theater alive, is still learning about Venture’s finances. Board member estimates of Venture's total debt have ranged from $120,000 to $130,000. McCracken, a spokeswoman for the board, said Wednesday that the latter figure is probably accurate, though the amount could be more.

The theater’s newly hired accountant, Darci Hertz — Venture's first accountant in several years — said Friday that in previous years Venture's board members hadn’t approved the annual financial statements required of nonprofits by the IRS. Those IRS form 990 statements, which bear former director Wood’s signature, are dramatically different than the one that Hertz prepared, and the board approved this week.

The latest form 990 for Venture shows a negative fund balance of $82,814. The previous year’s report showed a shortfall of just $4,450. A year ago, Venture's board was under the impression the theater was improving financially and increased Wood's compensation to $55,000, a $20,000 boost from Wood's reported salary a year earlier.

"The director, who is no longer with us, when he was brought on the board agreed that if he could turn things around, we would increase his salary," McCracken said. The director's previous salary was below average for the job.

Revenue from everything including performances and workshops to contributions and concessions, totaled about $432,228 in Venture's latest fiscal year. But, that is $74,027 short of meeting Venture’s annual expenses of just over $500,000.

Financial records reveal that Venture owes the city at least $72,357 on a revolving loan issued in 2003 to help with remodeling costs when Venture moved from a Central Avenue garage to Montana Avenue.

Pat Weber, Billings finance director, said Venture hasn’t made its $1,578 monthly payment on the loan in a year. The theater isn’t the first borrower to struggle paying the city back, Weber said. Arrangements for payments have always been made.

The Venture board also will meet Thursday with Montana Avenue redeveloper Michael Schaer to discuss its debt for the theater building. In 2003, Venture arranged to buy the building from Schaer, who agreed to monthly payments. McCracken said it’s likely been several years since the theater last made a payment to Schaer, who didn’t respond to a message from The Billings Gazette.

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To date, there have been no liens filed against the nonprofit.

Wednesday afternoon, Venture announced that it has so far raised about $30,000 through community donations and named an unpaid interim director.

Venture must become more progressive about fundraising and using what it has to raise money, McCracken said. The theater, which presently sits idle for days at a time, is going to have to be put to some additional use.

That will be a challenge because whatever is done with the facility will have to meet Venture’s nonprofit organization mission to stage challenging contemporary theater for adults and families and provide a wide range of education and performance opportunities for area youth.

And the production costs of Venture’s performances are going to have to go down, somehow. The board is still finding its way forward.


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