On Wednesday, John and Clelia Sheppard closed the sale of the Historic Palace Theatre in Cape Charles. This brings to a close a three-year debacle of absurdity, corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement that almost led to bankruptcy.
Several years ago, Mrs. Sheppard decided to step away from the day to day operations of running the Palace and turned it over to the Arts Enter Board of Directors. The board was well-intentioned but had very little experience with scheduling performing arts, much less managing a theater.
Running a non-profit performing arts organization means two things–constantly writing grants and benefactor outreach and engagement. The board put little or no effort into writing grants and essentially alienated former and prospective donors. Outside of lukewarm efforts to pull off the annual Benefit by the Bay, they did nothing.
With finances spiraling out of control, the board elected to bring on Bob Panek to right the ship. The finances did not improve, especially after hiring an executive director for close to $50k a year. What did happen was a rift began to open between the board and performing arts schools of dance and theater, both of which produced out of pocket three to four shows per year–just about the only income coming in at the time. Insults and ridicule led to further divides until the environment became so toxic, the schools contemplated closing and moving to a more hospitable location outside of Cape Charles.
With the financial health of Arts Enter sliding downhill fast, odd things began to happen. It was leaked to the Mirror that the board was contemplating selling the theater to an entity that would somehow create a first run movie theater. Of course, this deal, much like the old school deal, was negotiated secretly in the back rooms. Public anger and outcry scuttled the deal, but that would not be the end of it.
Later, Panek and former board member Joe Coccaro brought in a friend that was interested in a purported whiskey distillery showcase. In the blink of an eye, plans were being laid to sell off the costume and art rooms on Strawberry Street, essentially rendering the theatre unable to put on shows of any worth, and killing the performing arts in Cape Charles. Luckily, the distillery idea was rather flaccid, and the operation only wound up being able to lease the art room, leaving the theater with a smaller, more cramped space for costumes. The distillery had promised as part of the deal to make renovations to the costume room, most of which never happened. The Sheppards recently had to repair the ceiling that after construction was left open with dangerous wiring hanging down.
By the winter of 2018, with only a few thousand left in the bank, Clelia Sheppard agreed to step in and purchase the theatre outright. Staring into the abyss, the board recognized this may be the only way for Arts Enter and the Palace Theatre to survive. The board agreed to meet with the Sheppards for a formal proposal.
A couple of days before meeting to hear the Sheppard proposal, Bob Panek alerted the board that, lo and behold, there was now a second proposal, again to convert the Palace to a movie theater/performing arts venue. The board heard both proposals, but in the end, opted for the Sheppards, which was considered a more secure financial decision. The Sheppards would purchase the theatre outright and assume responsibility for upkeep, renovation, and repair. The Sheppard proposal was approved. Only Bob Panek voted against.
After closing, the former Arts Enter Board was dissolved. The new board created involves Clelia Sheppard, Mary Ann Roehm, and Katherine Reid.