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Angie's List CEO buys Greek church for opera: Arts group hopes Meridian-Kessler digs will help it grow

July 14, 2008

Angie's List CEO Bill Oesterle has paid nearly $1.5 million to buy Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood and is renting it to the Indianapolis Opera to use as a multi-function center offering rehearsal space, classes and small performances.

"I would have been hard-pressed to tell you much about the Indianapolis Opera before all of this. But I think they'll be great neighbors," said Oesterle, who lives on Washington Boulevard, directly north of the church parking lot.

The opera has been eyeing the property for more than a year, but its plans to buy the church at Pennsylvania and 40th Street fell through when a major donor backed out of the project.

Enter Oesterle, who has never attended one of the local group's productions but thought an opera center would be a good fit for the largely residential area.

Neighbors have been concerned about who would move into the church since 2005, when leaders of the Greek congregation announced plans to build a new facility in Carmel. The church expects to move early next year.

Oesterle, who has lived in Meridian-Kessler off and on since 1992, hopes the new tenants keep mature trees in place and camouflage some of the parking, making the corner a "real focal point for the neighborhood," he said.

He closed on the purchase June 27, though he has yet to set foot in the 24,000-square-foot building. He's renting it to the opera for five years at a "very reasonable rate" that both he and opera Executive Director John Pickett declined to disclose. He plans to turn over ownership to the opera eventually.

Indianapolis Opera already owns a 3,000-square-foot building a few blocks away at 250 E. 38th St.; leaders have been trying to sell the property, which houses opera offices, since 2006. The building, which is listed for $425,000, doesn't have room for meetings, storage, rehearsals or educational programs.

The opera stages its productions at nearby Butler University's Clowes Memorial Hall and rehearses at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, churches and schools. Its educational programs are held wherever organizers can find space.

Major performances will remain at Clowes, but consolidating other activities in a facility the public can visit should help the opera raise money along with its profile.

"It's a bold step for us," Pickett said. "But [the space] would allow us to achieve something" that would have taken years to develop from scratch.

Launch pad for growth

Operas nationwide struggle to break even, balancing a dependence on cyclical fund raising and very expensive productions. Indianapolis is no exception.

The Indianapolis Opera runs on a fiscal year that ends June 30. After running up a $362,250 budget deficit over two years, Pickett and the board restructured in 2006, cutting 2-1/2 staff positions and eliminating one of four mainstage performances.

Results were immediate. In 2006-2007, the opera had an operating surplus of nearly $240,000. This year's numbers are still being crunched, but Pickett estimates having a $50,000-$100,000 surplus. The opera's mainstage performances averaged 85 percent of Clowes' capacity this year, drawing nearly 10,500 attendees.

For the upcoming season, the opera is sticking to three mainstage productions but adding a collaboration with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Although a new facility likely would double the opera's annual building costs to $110,000, Pickett expects it could make up the difference by renting the space out for meetings, weddings and other performances.

The opera also would be able to offer visiting artists and apprentices unfettered rehearsals on site and roll out new programming-like summer camps to get young people interested in the art form. Pickett also wants to open a box office at the church.

"It will allow us to create more touch points with the community and build our audience and donor base," he said.

Having a home base that people can visit creates a better impression among potential supporters, said Ernie Vargo, a senior consultant with Greenwood-based Johnson Grossnickle and Associates Inc.

"It gives donors confidence in the longterm viability of an organization," he said. "[They say], 'I can see where its home is now and I know it will be around.'"

Good thing, since the opera kicked off a capital campaign July 11 with a goal of raising $3.5 million for the facility.

About $2 million will be set aside in a building maintenance endowment, and the remainder will pay for immediate needs such as a new roof on an historic portion of the church, new air-conditioning units and new signs.

The opera already has lined up $1.3 million in pledges above and beyond Oesterle's purchase. He has asked the opera to consider selling naming rights to the building to raise additional funds.

New home, new phase

The Indianapolis opera is in good company when it comes to creating an opera center. And those who have gone before said it makes a world of difference.

After more than 40 years of storing costumes and sets in leaky warehouses and bouncing between rented and donated rehearsal space, Opera Memphis opened its $4 million center in 2003. It raised $7 million to cover the $1 million land acquisition cost and a building endowment.

"It's really transformed the way the company works," said Artistic and General Director Michael Ching.

First, it can attract a higher level of talent because visiting artists get a modern facility, wireless Internet, locker rooms and individual practice rooms. And having a storefront has meant the community recognizes the opera as a permanent contributor to the local cultural scene, he said.

This fall, Tennessee's Nashville Opera will be moving into a $6 million center in a portion of a renovated indoor tennis complex. It launched a $12 million capital and endowment campaign for the center and has raised $9.3 million so far.

Nashville Opera leaders expect to make up to $100,000 in annual rental income by leasing their facility out to other performing arts groups and specialevent organizers.

"This type of brick-and-mortar building draws a lot of attention to any company," said CEO Carol Penterman.

While Indianapolis Opera will continue to hold its grand productions at Clowes Hall, the new venue opens opportunities for smaller operas performed in the church's sanctuary.

Pickett said he already is looking into performing "Amahl and the Night Visitors," a Christmas-themed piece, in the new space. And the small venue means the company could tackle more "cuttingedge" material.

"Opera is such a vital art form right now," he said.

The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and theater groups have also looked into using the space, Pickett said.

The opera's pending move brings to an end a nearly three-year struggle to find a new use for the church building. The Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church listed the three-acre site for sale in October 2005, as it finalized plans to build a new facility in Hamilton County.

In mid-2006, a charter school organization signed a contract for the space but didn't make it through a rigorous neighborhood review because residents felt the school would attract too much traffic.

After that deal fell through, Pickett toured the facility on a lark. While the opera's long-term plans included a multifunction center, it wasn't something leaders thought was immediately attainable. But once Pickett saw that the facility mirrored the opera's needs, he was hooked.

The opera plans to move its rehearsals there soon, but it won't be consolidating office space just yet. It is subleasing the building to the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, whose new facility isn't finished.

Holy Trinity will use the space for September's Greek Fest.
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