As the holiday season rushes upon us, Fremont has a nail-biter fund-raiser going on that will alter the face of our community.
The www.emptyspace.org web site provides daily information on efforts to raise $350,000 by Jan. 15 for The Empty Space Theatre.
The Empty Space had their opening season in 1970 in Pioneer Square, moving here to the old Independent Order of Odd Fellows hall 11 years ago.
At that time, the Fremont Chamber of Commerce saw the theater as instrumental to our community's success. Theater brings people to our restaurants, shops and art galleries. These days people come here just to eat or ogle, but it wasn't always so.
Now the Empty Space teeters on a precipice.
In September, the Empty Space board of directors took a look at a growing deficit and evaporating funding pool and called "Halt!" Their decision to instantly go dark, and possibly close down, took most of us by surprise, but the board has shown, again, a characteristic dedication to responsibilities.
Of all the nonprofits I've worked with, I've long admired the Empty Space the most for its determination to make each dollar go the furthest possible.
"This campaign just confirms our fiscal responsibility," interim managing director Steve Galatro told me.
When Steve speaks with community philanthropists, he says they ask "How much," then "That's it?"
Most organizations stumble and fall with debts in the millions, and their solutions include buying buildings that require more millions to renovate. That the Space stopped at $350,000 appears almost humorous - to those who don't need to raise it.
"We're going forward, knowing we can't go back," Steve explained.
Part of that amount covers debt, and part covers the coming year. This isn't a stop-gap measure or an amount picked with willy-nilly artistic capriciousness, but an honest assessment of what they need to get them up and performing.
Along with raising funds, Steve works furiously on their new business plan. "We have got to set up an internal structure - productive and efficient," he said.
One revolution is resource-sharing. They pay rent for the theater and a scene shop - why not share? Another small theater group, or several, can use the facility when the Empty Space company doesn't.
For our community, this presents a bonus. We'd have more live theater - year-round - and increased exposure for our community's offerings.
The sticking point lies in the name of the facility. They've long referred to both the theater and the theater company as The Empty Space. Steve mentioned they've considered renaming the facility, although "not necessarily" returning to an old one.
I'm hoping. I love the wonderfully ironic name "Fremont Palace."
The external shift
With all the shifts internally, an external shift needs to happen, too. The connection between the theater and the community has suffered in recent years.
While Melissa Hines served as managing director for the Empty Space, she worked tirelessly within the community. When she resigned after 25 years with the theater, in 2002, her absence left a gaping hole - both at the Space and "on the street."
Her replacement, John Bradshaw, worked hard to carry on, but personal tragedy caused him to leave after only a year-and-a-half on the job. In the interim, Steve took over until yet another replacement could be found.
I asked if he wanted the task permanently, but he'd prefer to return to marketing. This sent the board on a candidate search that turned international. As they finalized their choice, they took a hard look at the state of the Space and realized it just might be too late.
Rumors have circulated that the board grew tired - of keeping a theater going in hard economic times and fighting bad luck. A great deal of their debt began when the face of the building collapsed in 2001, making it unsafe for most of one season.
Renting additional office space, moving productions to other venues and losing significant numbers of subscribers couldn't be avoided or budgeted away.
The board has shrunk in numbers over the years, but Steve insists weariness doesn't factor into it; members remain enthusiastic and committed. They've made plans, after re-opening, to strategically grow the board - to look for people with specialties in law, human resources and funding.
There appears no shortage of people who love the theater and want to help. Volunteers have rushed to the Space since their campaign began - giving time if they can't give money. They've also had an outpouring of support from artists, here and across the country.
"It has been overwhelming," Steve admitted.
The theater's website lists information on several artist-driven events, as well as a music event developing with bands and DJs lending their talent.
Whitney Burdsall, in her position as media liaison, presented the news of the theater's distress to the Fremont chamber, and they organized Dine Out Fremont, to take place Dec. 1, starting at 6 p.m. Dozens of Fremont restaurants and bars graciously agreed to donate proceeds that night to the Space.
"I haven't gotten any that say they can't participate," she told me.
Steve and Whitney both spoke of the warm and supportive reception they've received from the Fremont business community, without a "No, I can't," so far.
Steve admits holding a fund-raiser during the Christmas season might work against them, or in their favor. They call this the "season of giving" after all.
According to Steve, the board has every interest in staying. Rumors that they want to return to Pioneer Square, closer to the theater scene, appear to be just rumors.
I hope so. We are are a community, a family, and to be without our theater would be like losing the kids who spent all afternoon preparing their skits to show us after dinner is cleared.
We can live without them, but why would we want to?
Kirby Lindsay lives in Fremont, within sight of the "old" Fremont Palace. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.