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New episode in off-stage drama at Helper's Rio Theatre

Sun Advocate associate editor

The longest-playing drama at Helper's Rio Theatre has never appeared onstage. It has been the story of the theatre itself. Now in its 14th year, the series is about to take a new turn: professional management under contract with the city.

At last Thursday's meeting, the city council voted to allow Mayor Dean Armstrong and City Attorney Gene Strate to draw up a contract with Lund-Fontana Enterprises, LLC, to handle the operations and get the building working as intended.

The council's action drew applause from an audience of one - professional actor Morgan Lund, principal of the firm and the impresario behind the theatre's last full season of performances two years ago.

Lund has been working with the council for months to design an arrangement that would staff the operation with at least some part-time employees responsible for marketing and promotion.

Those employees would draw their paychecks from the company, not from the city. The city would continue to be owner of the property but the company would operate it.

Regardless of who employs the workers, the creation of jobs could free the city from a $37,000 debt to the federal government. Originally, funding for the Rio was intended as a federal grant for economic development. However, when the jobs that were supposed to be created did not appear, the grant became a loan.

Debbie Hatt, executive director of the Southeaster Utah Association of Local Governments, told the council earlier this year that creation of the jobs during the next two years could turn the loan into a grant again.

"One way or another, we're going to spend the money," Armstrong told the council Thursday. That would either be paying off the debt or paying a contractor.

It was the same theme that Lund had followed in an earlier presentation to the city: either send the money to Washington or spend it in Helper.

Lund estimated that the cost of two part-time interns at the theatre would be $17,000 until the end of the city's fiscal year June 30.

Those workers would be involved in drumming up activities, performances, ticket sales and promotion. Lund has said that much of the day-to-day business of theaters these days is conducted on-line, so one of the early objectives is to create a strong Internet presence.

Lund and Councilman Kirk Mascaro have also been seeking funds from the Restaurant/Room Tax Fund recently.

However, as the mayor noted in his comments to the council, one of the difficulties in fund raising has been that there is no one running the Rio.

Before it gets signed, the contract will have to be acceptable to the city attorney, must permit the federal loan to become a grant and then earn the council's final approval.

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