Two performing arts centers in Medford?

Is Medford big enough for two performing arts centers? Short answer: I don't know. If I had that kind of mojo, I'd quit the column racket and take my amazing (alas, not) show-biz savvy to the marketplace and be the next Bill Graham.

Wouldn't you?

Jefferson Public Radio plans to turn the moldering old Holly Theatre in downtown Medford into a shiny new performing arts center. Sounds nice. But Medford already has a flagship-type performing arts center in the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theatre, which became a community mainstay after a $5.2 million restoration in 1997. And the GRT opposes JPR's Holly project.

With two of the Rogue Valley's premier arts and entertainment players on an apparent collision course, a couple of worries present themselves. Is this too much competition for a limited well of donor support? And will the two organizations wind up going head-to-head for a limited audience?

Don't sell either JPR or the GRT short.

JPR has a long record of growth and success. In addition to broadcasting to a big swath of Southern Oregon and Northern California, it has already brought a similar project to fruition, renovating the old Cascade Theatre in Redding, Calif., into a vibrant center that hosts big-name entertainment and has managed to run in the black during tough times.

But some GRT supporters and others question whether the arts dollar is big enough to support two major presenters in Medford (population of about 75,000 in a county of about 200,000). Even the prestigious Britt Festivals in nearby Jacksonville, the Northwest's oldest summer music festival, has had to scale back after struggling with a budget shortfall.

On the periphery — but also figuring into the equation — is the still-newish, under-utilized, 4,500-seat Lithia Amphitheater in Central Point (don't get me started), the Rogue Theatre in Grants Pass and the Ross Ragland Theatre in Klamath Falls.

Times are tough. The concert industry, already under pressure from the collapse of the recording industry, has struggled the last few years. Even mega-powerful Live Nation Entertainment (U2, Rihanna, Jay-Z) has been forced to make cutbacks.

Chris Borovansky, who booked performers from Bob Dylan to Nirvana when he ran the Jackson County Fair, is now CEO of the Stanislaus County Fair in central California. He has no dog in this fight.

"I don't think any community can have too many cultural opportunities," Borovansky says. "Having said that, it strikes me there's overlap in the base of support. In this economy, it bears some pretty intense scrutiny as to how many of these fairly typical facilities the community can afford to have."

Borovansky tells me the Craterian and the Holly would be playing the same field to a greater degree than, say, the Craterian and Britt.

JPR's Foundation, which has signed an agreement to buy the Holly, says it will reach out to both public and private sources to raise the money to turn the Frank Clark-designed theater into a $3.5 million venue. They say the project will not only contribute to the arts but to historic preservation and economic revitalization in Medford.

In a letter to friends of the Craterian posted on its website, Craterian Performances Board President Kingsley Kelley suggested there are limits to the number of members and business sponsors out there.

"It is this local support ... that has allowed the Craterian to meet our mission to enhance the cultural opportunities available ..." Kelley wrote. "It saddens me to think that two very similar facilities could one day be competing for the same sponsors, donors and programs."

Ticket sales don't come close to cutting it in these deals. Kelley's concern strikes me as reasonable. But we've seen JPR pull rabbits out of the fundraising hat more than once.

In terms of concerts, the JPR website ( paints a picture not of a competition but of one venue complementing the other. The Holly would not do the traveling Broadway shows that GRT does, JPR says, but would focus on the kind of acts heard on JPR and presented at the Cascade in Redding. It says the 1,000-seat Holly will be able to book artists that the 732-seat Craterian can't.

"During the last two years," the JPR website says, "artists such as Merle Haggard, Robert Cray, Bryan Adams, The Manhattan Transfer, Jo Dee Messina, Bruce Hornsby, Joan Osborne and Clint Black have performed in Redding ... but did not perform in Medford." (Adams may have bypassed Medford earlier, but he is coming to the GRT this year).

JPR says it can also use the Holly to present film and NPR-type theatrical performances and national radio shows such as "eTown" and "Mountain Stage."

There is clearly some merit to the argument that the two theaters would focus on different entertainment and serve somewhat different audiences. There is also bound to be overlap, but how much?

"They're trying to paint an optimistic picture," Borovansky says of JPR.

Well, that's how these things go. Is a 270-seat difference enough to enable the Holly to do acts the GRT can't?

"Three hundred seats at some point holds water," Borovansky allows. "But on what do they base the notion that another center would be additive, not competitive? Do they have an economic study?"

Good questions. Here's another. A recent J.J. Cale show at the GRT drew an audience different from the GRT's usual suspects — not necessarily younger, but scruffier; people who grew up on rock, not Broadway. Isn't that more the usual JPR-Cascade audience? Is there a cultural divide here with an under-served community?

I'm an avid JPR listener. The presets in my car are set to JPR's Rhythm and News Service, JPR's Classical Service, JPR's News and Information service. Southern Oregon without JPR? Unthinkable.

I'm a Craterian admirer. In 1997 they turned a faded 1920s movie palace into a vibrant concert venue for Broadway shows, family programs and other entertainment. It's a home to local arts groups from the Rogue Valley Symphony to the Youth Symphony of Southern Oregon. Southern Oregon without the GRT? Unthinkable.

Does JPR's impending move to Medford after Bruce Larson's gift of a building bring a Holly Center for the Performing Arts closer to reality? Will the need to raise money for JPR's new home trump the fundraising needed for the Holly and push it back? Is Medford big enough for two performing arts centers?

Medford has a good one now. Having two good ones would be fantastic. Having two that struggle, or one that kills the other off, would be awful. I don't believe that's JPR's intention.

(Note: Next week JPR's Ron Kramer and GRT's Stephen McCandless will discuss the Holly project in this space.)

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to

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