Becker outlines strategic initiatives at first porch discussion

Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer

Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker said the Institution’s strategic plan extends its horizons to 2018 at Wednesday morning’s first Trustee Porch Discussion of the season.

“The plan itself requires that we continue to study and continue to discover the key elements to this and then respond to them accordingly,” Becker said.

Early stages of the plan, adopted by the board of trustees, allowed the Institution to learn lessons about the value of cost and revenue that were garnered from the deep analysis, he said.

“Understand what it really is going to take you — financially speaking — to care for these grounds and the 100 buildings the Institution is responsible for on an annual basis,” Becker said.

When the trustees looked at what the buildings needed and what was allocated in the operations fund, there was a gap, Becker said. As part of the strategic plan, the Institution needed to find a way to close that difference.

“That’s not something you usually do in a year, so the question is how do you adjust your overall financial approach to do that,” he said. “Early on in the process, we knew we had to cut costs dramatically.”

So the Institution went to artistic directors, department managers and program coordinators to talk about the issue, he said.

Luckily, Becker said, those leaders seemed to understand that there was a serious issue whose fixing would require everyone to take a cut.

“No one was at that table saying, ‘Well, fix it but don’t include me,’ ” he said. “Thankfully, some of them — rather heroically — entered into that, and we slashed our costs in 2009 in a big way.”

The Institution also realized that if it didn’t start drawing more people onto its grounds, it would have to raise prices, Becker said. So it invested in a professional plan of marketing for the first time two years ago.

The other good news, Becker said, is that the Institution has been raising money. Beginning this year, the Chautauqua Foundation has set a goal of raising fundraising for the annual fund by 5 percent.

“In dark periods, Chautauquans are responding incredibly generously,” he said.

Still, he said, the endowment is about $65 million, and it needs to be about $200 million for the operations for which the Institution is responsible.

Becker also discussed some individual projects including food service issues, the creation of the Brick Walk Cafe, the Athenaeum Hotel renovation and the preservation of Chautauqua Lake.

The Institution received a grant of almost $800,000 from the state to be used on stormwater management. Chautauqua is the only funded source in New York west of the Hudson River that has been awarded this grant, Becker said.

“The solutions are expensive, and I know for a fact that some of the communities can’t afford to do what they have to do,” he said.

It’s going to take a collective energy, he said, to get political funds to help communities that don’t have the money to take the necessary measures to preserve the lake. The Institution is trying to play a serious local role in that, he said.

Another important project in its beginning stages is the rehabilitation of the Amphitheater, which was built in 1893.

“It was well-known that at some point someone would have to address the rehab of the Amphitheater so that it can serve the next 100 years or so years of Chautauqua’s activities,” he said.

More details on the progress of the project will be public later this summer, Becker said, but the Institution is keeping historic preservation and the ambience of the Amp in mind.

“Our Amphitheater isn’t out in a field some place,” he said.  “It’s in the very torso of our community — in fact, it’s the heart of that community.”

In addition, stormwater management, energy, sustainable design, safety, accessibility for handicap individuals and increasing capacity are all in the discussion, Becker said.

For all capital projects, the board of trustees must know the entire cost before signing off. They need to know who will build it, what it will cost to run and whether the Institution has raised enough money for the project.

“There is no Amphitheater project unless they sign on the bottom line, and they don’t sign on the bottom line until we’ve got all the money raised up front,” Becker said.

One woman from the community expressed that she and others have had concerns with the acoustics and volume levels in the Amp, saying that she knew she and her friends hadn’t become “old and deaf” since last season.

Others at the discussion agreed, and Becker acknowledged that the acoustics do need refinement. He said the renovation project will look at better audio equipment.

The Amp must also do a better job of testing sound systems, he said, but sometimes speakers may not be speaking slowly or loudly enough.

Another point of concern in the community is the increased number of scooters being used. One woman said she was almost knocked down by a man using a scooter before the morning lecture.

“Scooters are enabling an extended lifetime for Chautauquans and their exposure to programs in a way that is utterly critical to their experiences,” Becker said. But he recognized a need for regulation.

The Institution has considered creating a set of rules and regulations that would clamp down on the use of scooters and their access to certain areas, he said, but it realized it didn’t have the information necessary to back up serious rules.

“One of the things we know about rules is if you put them out without a real knowledge of all of the variances, you end up with rules that you can’t enforce,” he said. “Once you have rules that you can’t enforce, then you don’t have rules.”

This year the Institution will focus on getting that information to prepare appropriately, he said.

Trustee Porch Discussions are held at 9:30 a.m. Wednesdays on the Hultquist Center porch.