Guest Commentary

The Rialto Theatre is laying claim to property it doesn't own—and here's why

Most Tucson Weekly readers know that there is a dispute over property between the Rialto Theatre Foundation, a not-for-profit organization for which I work, and the Downtown Tucson Development Corporation (DTDC), which owns the Rialto building (but not the theater).

The property in question—two small storefront bays on both sides of the Rialto's entrance and an outbuilding along Broadway Boulevard that is used as a green room and the theater's office—totals approximately 4,000 square feet.

The DTDC owns the spaces. So why should the theater (owned by the city of Tucson) get to lay claim to it? Let me try to explain.

I became involved with the foundation in the summer of 2004, just before the city completed the purchase of the theater. The idea was that an improved Rialto Theatre would serve as an economic engine with vast spillover benefits for other downtown businesses, and offer visible evidence of progress on downtown revitalization. The theater would harness the power of live music as the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.

When we took possession of the Rialto, it was in pretty rough shape. It had a host of problems, and it was incumbent on us to cobble together donations, loans and about $350,000 in Rio Nuevo matching funds to get the theater reopened in improved form. By April 2005, we achieved that.

Since then, we've steadily and incrementally continued to improve the place, mostly using operating income. In the summer of 2006, Rio Nuevo provided funding for the theater to be air-conditioned. We installed a new, first-rate PA system last summer. We improved the building at 211-215 E. Broadway Blvd. (the "green room") by adding HVAC, creating an office and making the green room more habitable for the world-class artists we host. All of these efforts and expenditures accrue to the public's asset—the theater itself—and not to anyone's private interest.

It's safe to say that the quantity and quality of acts that perform at the Rialto have increased dramatically since 2004, which is something I personally take great pride in, since programming is my responsibility. However, this dispute has become a serious hindrance, and could be fatal if the DTDC evicts us from the spaces they own.

We have epitomized the "do more with less" chestnut at every step, and we've brought the theater to a significantly higher level, evidenced by the fact that the Rialto is no. 42 on Pollstar's recently released Worldwide Top 100 Club Venues list (and keep in mind that Tucson is considered a tertiary market). We have accomplished this standing with the bare minimum of what is needed for a quality venue of the Rialto's class.

The city of Tucson was—and is still—willing to make a deal with the DTDC to acquire the spaces in question. The DTDC is now unwilling to negotiate, despite the fact that we were nearly in agreement with the proposed terms of their now-ditched development deal. For some mystifying reason, the council's eminently reasonable request for another three weeks to work out some final kinks caused the DTDC to walk away.

The reality is this: Our need for these spaces is not a posture. The spaces are essential if we're to continue our mission to bring Tucson the best live music possible. Furthermore, if we're to have any hope of improving the patron experience at the Rialto (imagine better bathrooms, or a place to sit down and have a beer, or a patio!), we need a small amount of contiguous space into which we can expand.

We want to take the Rialto from good to great. The city wants to fairly compensate the DTDC for these spaces. The DTDC will benefit in direct proportion to our success in making the Rialto better. But it would seem they instead want to capitalize on our success more directly, going so far as to persistently insist upon a joint venture that would give them a revenue stream from the theater's concessions.

Being a part of downtown's revitalization requires a commitment to more than blatant self-interest. DTDC needs to walk the talk and demonstrate that they truly value the Rialto Theatre by selling the small amount of space that they themselves understand that we need.

From me to the DTDC: Do the right thing, and let's get on with making downtown better.

Curtis McCrary is the general manager/talent buyer at the Rialto Theatre. He is also a longtime Weekly contributor.