Theater, credit union ring in partnership

The Power House Theatre and Gesa sealed a naming deal Monday.

Christina Lethlean, president and chief executive officer of Gesa Credit Union, and Mark Anderson, a partner of the Power House Theatre, sign the offical documents Monday for the partnership between the credit union and theater.

Christina Lethlean, president and chief executive officer of Gesa Credit Union, and Mark Anderson, a partner of the Power House Theatre, sign the offical documents Monday for the partnership between the credit union and theater. Photo by Joe Tierney.

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Festive lights adorn the Power House Theatre, which on Monday celebrated a long-term partnership with Gesa Credit Union.

WALLA WALLA -- Power House Theatre managers and Gesa Credit Union executives made their new partnership official Monday.

A $1 million, 11-year agreement gives naming rights of the theater to Gesa and secures funding for numerous improvements that have been under way, including the highly anticipated indoor plumbing, theater and credit union officials announced at a press conference.

The ceremony -- including the presentation of a giant check for $50,000 -- signifies the official name changeover to "Gesa Power House Theatre." The first production at the newly named facility, "It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" opens Friday. Gesa Power House Theatre signage will be installed after installation of a new roof, which is one of many ongoing remodeling projects.

In an emotional speech Monday, Managing Director Harry Hosey told a crowd of actors, contractors and theater-supporters the partnership has been in the works for several months.

"With complete certainty I can state it will be the most significant gift this theater will ever receive," he said, between pauses to choke back tears.

He said the operation may receive millions over the coming decades. "But none of them will make the difference" the new partnership has.

The contribution from Gesa comes at a pivotal time in the theater's history. With the generosity of numerous local donors and investment from Hosey and Power House partners Mark Anderson and Dennis Ledford, the 368-seat theater was converted from a 120-year-old former power generating facility at 111 N. Sixth Ave. It was built to accommodate the growing Shakespeare Walla Walla performances that had been taking place at Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater, as well as a host of other productions. The thrust stage and balcony seating was inspired by Shakespeare's Blackfriars Theatre.

The building quickly made the list of state and federal historic buildings after opening in May 2011, but much work has still been needed to accommodate theater-goers, as well as performers. A new elevator is being built, as are the long-awaited indoor restrooms. The dressing room space, heating and cooling improvements and new roof are among the changes, as well.

Hosey said financial options had been exhausted by the end of summer. "We'd maxed out our ability to get new investment and debt, and we still needed indoor bathrooms," he lamented. The first $50,000 check will help pay contractors who have been working on the building, bought last year by Power House creators.

That "transformer" donation amount is dedicated specifically to building improvements and was intended to inspire other transformer donations, she said. Another $450,000 of the $1 million amount will be giving to the theater operators for capital work quickly, said Gesa President and Chief Executive Officer Christina Lethlean.

Of the remaining contribution: $250,000 is to be used as matching incentives for other fundraising events, and the other $250,000 is designated as reserves for future theater operations.

Lethlean said the agreement is similar to one Gesa has in Pasco at Gesa Stadium, where the Tri-City Dust Devils play. A 10-year agreement there started in 2008.

Lethlean said the credit union aspires to support the communities in which it operates. With performing arts, the sponsorship also helps to diversify the culture of the community.

"You can't really quantify the ways it edifies the community," she said during a champagne reception after the ceremony.

Although changes at the theater appear to have been rapid, Lethlean said the vision has been in the works for at least five years when Hosey first saw the building.

During his part of the presentation, Hosey said he and his partners were originally quoted a remodeling cost of about $50,000. They couldn't have imagined all that would eventually need to be done. He borrowed a quote from Mark Twain to illustrate his point: "All you need is ignorance and confidence to succeed."

As audiences have endured intermissions with trips outside to portable restrooms and sometimes unpredictable temperatures inside, the numbers have continued to grow.

In 2011, 8,600 people attended shows at the theater. This year, 114 days of production have brought in 22,000 people, Hosey said. Next year's projection is over 30,000 ticket-holders.

"I don't think very many people know what a valuable economic engine this has quietly become," Hosey said.

As he shared the numbers, a door behind the stage lifted to reveal a new dressing room illuminated by round bulbs framing the mirrors at the Broadway-like makeup stations.

Hosey used the latest production to demonstrate the economic impact to the community. For "It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," actors and crew people in town for the performances will generate 82 lodging nights in local hotels. Over 100 dinners will be served. The budget for lodging alone is $110,000, he said.

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