For Many Charities, the Economic Crisis Continues

The Door is open! From the cars lined up on the highway to the people lined up at Al Johnson’s, it’s clear that Door County has reopened after more than a year of this horrible pandemic. The advance-reservation rates reported by our lodging establishments indicate that this may be the busiest season in Door County ever.

Yet as we look around at all the people who are enjoying their stay in this wonderful place, it’s easy to forget that some of our greatest community treasures were hit hard by this global health and economic crisis and are still struggling, even now.

“COVID nearly destroyed our organization,” said Amy Frank, managing director of Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP). “We haven’t sold a ticket in over 15 months. In March of 2020, TAP was in the final week of rehearsals for the first show of the season. The majority of our production expenses – construction of the set and costumes, salaries for the rehearsal period, promotional and advertising costs, and royalty fees – are all incurred prior to the first performance. Closing the theater right before opening night immediately put TAP in the red, and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.”

TAP’s story is far too common on our peninsula. So many arts and cultural organizations that are both essential to our quality of life and critical to our tourist economy faced similar stories of financial carnage last season.

“COVID devastated our budget last year,” said Mona Christensen, executive director of the Birch Creek Music Performance Center. “We not only lost all of our tuition revenue from our academy, but ticket sales from our concerts, advertising and sponsorships as well.”

“In 2020, our major conferences were canceled,” said Lauren Ward, managing director of Write On, Door County, “leaving us, like many artistic nonprofits, searching for ways to stay afloat and continue furthering our mission.”

These cultural treasures aren’t merely nonprofit organizations. They also employ real people who bore the brunt of this economic devastation.

“We had to cancel contracts for 63 company members,” said Dave Maier, managing director of Northern Sky Theater. “That’s more than $500,000 in lost wages to our performers and production staff.”

And this revenue loss wasn’t limited just to arts and cultural charities.

“We closed the Nature Center and canceled programs and events, including the Festival of Nature for the first time in 18 years,” said Andy Gill, executive director of The Ridges Sanctuary. “We count on those visitors to pay trail fees, make donations, shop in our Nature Store, sign up for memberships and take advantage of our programs. They are critical to our earned-income model.”

Environmental charities faced a significant added challenge during the pandemic because unlike arts groups whose stages went dark and buildings were closed, environmental organizations experienced a surge in the use of their facilities as the desire to be outdoors created unprecedented demand. Unfortunately, the increased use of trails and outdoor spaces translated into significantly higher maintenance costs without a commensurate increase in revenue.

“Demand for our programs is at an all-time high, but the decline in income has made it uniquely challenging to meet those demands,” Gill said.

It’s easy to look around at the incredible number of tourists we’re seeing this season and conclude that the economic crisis for these community treasures must be over. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the reality. Whether the source is guidance from public-health officials, restrictions from governing associations or labor contracts, or simply following best practices in a given field, ongoing COVID-19 restrictions are continuing to limit the ability of our charitable organizations to take advantage of these massive visitor numbers.

“This year, because of COVID protocols for music schools, summer camps and vaccinated/unvaccinated youth, we are operating at half capacity for our academy,” Christensen said. 

Similarly, Maier noted, “We already know that 2021 will also be a compromised season due to reduced audience capacity.”

That’s where you can help. The next time you walk the trails at Crossroads at Big Creek, be sure to leave an extra charitable gift behind. If you enjoyed a Midsummer’s Music concert, put something in a donation envelope before you leave for the evening. Charitable organizations such as these are essential to our quality of life and a major economic engine for our visitor industry.

“The ongoing donations from our friends and supporters are not only paying our bills, they are feeding our spirits,” Frank said. 

This season, make an extra gift to the charities you love the most.

This article, written by Door County Community Foundation President and CEO Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

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