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Repertory Theatre considers moving to Grand Center

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is considering what could be its biggest production yet: a move from its long-time home at Webster University to a new facility in the Grand Center arts and entertainment district.

Officials at The Rep and at Grand Center confirmed this week that discussions are underway, and that a likely site would be a parking lot next to Powell Symphony Hall. They declined to give many of the details. But sources said the facility being talked about could cost around $50 million or more. They said one of the lures of the parking lot site, owned by Grand Center Inc., is that the building could be designed with an entrance facing Grand Boulevard, giving The Rep a prominent presence in the district.

JoAnne LaSala, director of special projects for Grand Center, said while The Rep would be a welcomed addition in the district, "I want to stress that no formal decisions have been made yet."

". . .there are advantages we would gain. . ."

Mark Bernstein, managing director at The Rep, said that the organization has been exploring the idea of a possible move for some time, largely because of scheduling constraints at Webster's Loretto-Hilton Center. The Rep has been staging productions at the 763-seat Mainstage theater at the Loretto-Hilton since it opened in 1966. The Rep later began offering productions in the 125-seat Emerson Studio there, and three years ago, began staging shows at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center.

"There are a lot of reasons" for moving The Rep out of the Loretto-Hilton, Bernstein said. "Part of it is that we are very constrained now in our scheduling at Webster. It's not anyone's fault. It's just the way things have evolved with the sharing of that facility by The Rep, Opera Theatre and Webster." Should The Rep move, he said, it "would absolutely want to maintain" its long association and collaboration with Webster's Conservatory of Theatre and Dance.

Bernstein said The Rep is exploring "multiple sites" for a new facility, both in and outside of Grand Center. The parking lot site next to Powell is the only one he would confirm.

Should The Rep wind up building there, he said, its new facility would be about the same size as the Loretto-Hilton.

"We have no desire to have a larger facility," he said. "The main theater would be about the same size as what we have now. We also would have a smaller space, as we do now."

But with its own facility, he said, "we'd be able to do a lot of things differently … and there are advantages we would gain."

"One of the big advantages is that we could control our own schedule. We could run the season longer. Now we disappear in April for four and a half months.

"We could vary the length of some shows. We are now locked into a schedule where every show runs for the same number of weeks. We might be able to expand the run of a show. We could do certain things for shorter runs. … There are things we'd like to do now, but we can't," he said because of scheduling conflicts at the Loretto-Hilton.

Bernstein said The Rep's board approved exploring a possible move more than a year ago, as was reported back then in the St. Louis Business Journal. "It is something we've been looking at for a while, and are continuing to look at," he said.

But he added, "The outcome of planning for the future might be that we don't go anywhere. The goal is to determine how we can best serve our audiences in the future."

Counting the cost

Should The Rep decide to build at Grand Center, it would have to embark on a daunting fund-raising campaign. Bernstein wouldn't confirm a $50 million or so price tag for the new building. But he said it "would not be an inexpensive proposition. No doubt we would have to raise a lot of money."

The Rep covers about 66 percent of its expenses with ticket sales and has been operating in the black for most of the past 15 years, although last year, it was in the red. It also has an endowment of about $6 million. But the endowment money, Bernstein said, is essentially for operating and sustaining expenses and would not be spent for a new building.

Bernstein said because of a limited amount of land on the Webster campus, and Webster's own plans for the future, "I don't think" The Rep could build a new facility there.

Community ties

Karen Luebbert, a vice president and executive assistant to the president at Webster, said officials there are aware of The Rep's possible move.

"We work very closely with The Rep and they did tell us they are exploring other possibilities," she said. "We enjoy having The Rep on our campus, but The Rep has to make its own decisions, and any decision they would make, we would support."

Luebbert added that if The Rep would move off campus, "we absolutely" would want to continue the collaboration between Webster's conservatory for theater and dance and The Rep.

Susan Wedemeyer, director of marketing and communications at Grand Center, said in an e-mail that officials there learned of The Rep's interest in relocating last year and sent a letter "inviting The Rep to consider Grand Center as a possible home."

"The Rep is a vital presence in St. Louis theater, and Grand Center is the center for arts and entertainment, so obviously it would be a good match if they decided to relocate here," she said.

Grand Center officials also have been at work on plans for more parking that could accommodate The Rep's patrons and others. One source said that Grand Center and the St. Louis Treasurer's Office have formed a new joint entity that could issue bonds to help get more parking built in the district. That new entity and others are exploring several possible sites for a parking garage including one not far from Powell Hall.

St. Louis freelance writer Charlene Prost is a veteran reporter on regional development, architecture and historic preservation in the region.

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