Hippodrome remains key to downtown’s growing allure

By: Ron Wayne

The Hippodrome State Theatre in downtown Gainesville has an estimated economic impact of almost $4 million annually, but the joy it brings to audiences this month alone cannot be measured in dollars.

Thousands of patrons are filling seats for performances of two holiday plays – a boon for restaurants, bars and even hotels with up to 30 percent of patrons coming from beyond a 100-mile radius. The Hipp, as it’s affectionately known, also will enrich the lives of more than 6,500 young students who might be experiencing live theater for the first time.

The students will attend performances of “A Christmas Carol,” a popular tradition for Hipp audiences, too.  This year, the Hipp also is offering the world premiere of “The Snow Queen,” written and directed by University of Florida theater professor Charlie Mitchell.

Managing Director Jessica Hurov described the Hipp’s relationship with the community as a covenant. The business community, government leaders, the University of Florida and numerous individuals understand its importance, according to Hurov.  

The Hipp provides not only professional theater productions and art films, but educational outreach through a variety of programs, a summer children’s theater program, field trips for school-age students and discounted access for a variety of groups.

“We are here, the community loves us and we have the beautiful building, which has come to represent the arts and cultural heartbeat of downtown,” she said. “At the same time, there is an investment that the same people who enjoy that need to understand they have to support.”

And they do. Almost 30 percent of its $2.5 million budget comes from in-kind contributions and support from individuals, corporations and foundations.

“Luckily for us there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in the community who believe in us and have invested in us,” Hurov said. “We feel so grateful and thankful for all of their contributions that have enabled us to be a 43-year-old leader in professional theater in this country.”

The business community recognizes the Hipp’s impact. Support from more than 40 business partners ranges from use of 12 apartments provided by local developers for visiting cast members to design and marketing services provided by local firms.

“It creates downtown as a destination for something special that you didn’t used to find any place else,” said Linda McGurn, who with her husband, Ken, developed much of the area around the Hipp into spaces for residences, restaurants, retail stores and offices.

Since the late 1980s, downtown has had a vibrant nightlife, but the addition of the Union Street residential-commercial-office building in 2000 and the 124-room Hampton Inn & Suites in 2009 brought a different mix of residents and visitors to the area, she said.

Now you have people working downtown during the day, people coming downtown for dinner, and most college students not coming out until after 11 p.m. “So downtown stays busy until 2 a.m.,” she added.

“I think people are proud when they come to the Hippodrome,” McGurn said.  “A lot of people who get interviewed for jobs or when the university is bringing someone in, they take them to Dragonfly or Mark’s or Amelia’s or Manuel’s. This is a part of town they want people to see.”

John Pricher, executive director of Visit Gainesville, also has seen downtown Gainesville increasingly become a destination for people seeking entertainment and leisure, especially with a surge in the number of new restaurants and bars.

“At one point when you thought about downtown, Harry’s and Emiliano’s and Amelia’s were the core restaurants, that’s kind of what was downtown,” he said. “Then Mark’s came on board when Union Street Station opened up, then Dragonfly moved in. Now there is the group that owns The Top and all the other little venues they have – the Wooly, the Atlantic, the Pop A Top, the No Name Bar, the Arcade bar.”

He ticked off a list of newer places to eat.

“Crane Ramen, Paramount Grill, Manuel’s – all of these are excellent choices that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” he said. “Now there are nightclubs that are not necessarily student driven that give the opportunity for people to come downtown and have a drink or even more.”

All of this exists within a pedestrian-friendly radius. “The way the streets are set up, with all the stop signs, people aren’t ripping through there,” he said. The Hippodrome, which sits at the foot of Southeast 1st Street, stands out as an architectural focal point with its three-story concrete pillars.

The Hipp provides a cultural opportunity for the area’s numerous business travelers who might want cultural activities after dinner.

“And it’s affordable for professional theater; the prices make it work,” Pricher said. “It’s something well within most people’s budgets to go do.  Even if the material may not turn out to be what you thought, the level of performances is fantastic every time. These folks are making their livelihoods doing this and that’s something we stress when we’re helping them and promoting on our own channels.”

As one measure of its reach and influence, ZIP codes were calculated for the highly successful production of the musical “Avenue Q” in 2013.

“It was fascinating to see how many people attended from South Florida, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and on the other coast,” Hurov said. “The farther away they come, the more they are having an impact because they are more likely to buy a meal, stay overnight.

“At the same time, understanding that the reason the ticket prices are so much lower than what you would pay in New York for a show like Avenue Q is because we’re nonprofit.  So the cost of a ticket only covers half or even less than half of what it costs to put that production on.”

Access to the arts remains one of the Hipp’s core values. “We accomplish that through keeping ticket prices affordable to the most people as possible,” she said. Discounts are given to patrons under 30, seniors and the military. In the last two years they’ve added a “pay what you can night” with a $5 minimum for the first Tuesday night of every run. They also work with 10 community nonprofits to offer $15 tickets to their supporters.

But the Hipp’s success is not without its challenges. Since state funding cuts in 2006 and 2007, the Hipp has lost 14 people through attrition, Hurov said. Most of them were never replaced, and yet the Hipp has continued to survive and even thrive.

“There has never been a single day that we’ve ceased to program, we’ve never canceled a show, we’ve never not shown a film, we’ve never canceled a summer camp,” she said. “As far as our commitment to our community, we have continued despite having less …. and our staff has literally taken on two or three jobs apiece because they’re not filling vacant positions that we once had filled.”

The Hipp was hit this past year with an unanticipated 49 percent cut in state funding – a loss of $75,000. About 20 percent of its budget – or $481,000 — comes from state, federal and city grants, including the city’s building lease grant – valued at $250,000 – for the historic building.

The theater answered the challenge with a multi-pronged strategy – get more people to patronize the programs, seek more support locally and promote facility rentals, she said.

In addition to renting the mainstage and cinema for various functions such as the annual Frank conference sponsored by UF, the Hipp has converted most of the basement into a venue that can be rented for parties, fundraisers and wedding receptions.

“One of the things the Hipp is good at is adapting to whatever changes we need to make, and so when we looked at the economic climate this year, we had to adapt,” she said.

About 50 percent of the Hipp’s revenue – or $1.3 million – comes from earned income: play and cinema tickets, facility rentals, camps, concessions and the art gallery.

“The Hippodrome is a jewel in downtown Gainesville, one of the things that our community is so proud of, and that takes investment,” she said.

So as audiences enjoy “A Christmas Carol,” this month, they might want to have a Scrooge-like epiphany and boost their contributions to this cultural resource. It’s as easy as becoming a member at http://thehipp.org/support-us/become-a-member/

Ron Wayne is a freelance writer and editor in the Gainesville region. He can be reached at ufeditor78@gmail.com


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