Struggling Hilton Head youth theater group seeks town's help to come home

gmartin@islandpacket.comJuly 24, 2012 

Tara Bianco plays Peter Pan during a rehearsal of the 2010 Main Street Youth Theatre production at Hilton Head Island High School's Visual and Performing Arts Center.

STAFF, FILE PHOTO

The chairman of the Main Street Youth Theatre board admits her nonprofit organization has had financial problems since moving out of its namesake home more than two years ago.

To remedy that, she wants to move back in -- with the financial backing of the Town of Hilton Head Island.

"We've been struggling ever since (the move), and we do need their money," said Sheri Sternitzke. "We're not going to fold, though."

The theater board is asking the town to acquire the theater's old home at 3000 Main St. and pay about 40 percent of the rent and maintenance, a commitment she estimates would cost about $15,000 per year. The theater would assume the rest of the expenses.

The theater also would be responsible for keeping the building occupied during the six months each year that the youth group would not use it.

"I think we'll have no problem doing that," Sternitzke said, adding she has contacted Hilton Head Christian Academy and Hilton Head Preparatory School about renting the building for their school productions.

Sternitzke says she and other theater representatives have been in "serious talks" with the building's owner and Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin for the past six to eight months, adding she's optimistic an agreement can be reached soon.

But Laughlin downplayed the importance and productivity of those meetings.

"My involvement has not been that extensive or detailed," he said. "The discussions have been very general, very tentative, and no decisions have been made one way or another."

He added Sternitzke's biggest challenge would be convincing Town Council the building would be used regularly.

"We're talking about the town investing in the purchase of a facility, and I doubt the theater would utilize it enough to warrant that," he said. "There has to be some demonstration of need, that it wouldn't sit empty a good portion of the time."

Laughlin hopes the theater can remain viable even if the town doesn't agree to take on some of its expense.

"I'm a fan of the Main Street Youth Theatre; they're an asset to our community, and I'd like to see them succeed," he said, adding the town has supported it with yearly accommodations-tax grants, derived from taxes on overnight lodging.

Earlier this year, the theater received $42,000 in bed-tax funds -- after receiving $25,000 in 2010 and $40,000 in 2011 -- but Sternitzke said that's still not enough.

Since moving out of its namesake theater, the group has rented a 5,000-square-foot building for rehearsals on New Orleans Road for $3,500 per month and pays $750 a night for its shows at the Visual Performing Arts Center at Hilton Head Island High School.

The theater also paid more than $2,000 for the rights to perform its current production, "Beauty and the Beast" and is further hamstrung by a decline in donations from major, private benefactors, Sternitzke said.

The organization has not conducted any major fundraisers lately, Sternitzke said.

Consequently, the group of about 150 youth, between ages 7 and 18, faces an uncertain future, Sternitzke said.

"I don't know where else those kids would go, because there's nothing like this on the island," she said. "They're not going to find anything this rewarding and educational."

Main Street Youth Theatre began in 1997 as the Hilton Head Community and Youth Theater. Productions were staged at the community playhouse in Dunnagans Alley, which was demolished in 2010. In 2006, the theater group was renamed and moved to Main Street.

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