New leader aims to reinvigorate Whitaker Center

Ted Black became president and CEO of Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts in early March. He is seen here surrounded by two life-sized animatronic dinosaurs featured in the center's summer exhibit Dinosaur Discovery, on display through Sept. 3. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

With several hundred thousand fans watching, the Pittsburgh Penguins held a parade earlier this month to celebrate their second straight Stanley Cup hockey championship.

But the team hasn’t always been known for its dominance on the ice. It also is the only team in the four major North American sports to file for bankruptcy twice. Once in the late 1990s it almost didn’t finish its season due to money woes.

Ted Black was instrumental in the team’s financial turnaround following that period.

And while the fiscal challenges facing Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts today aren’t as serious, and he has gone from pro sports to nonprofit venue management, Black feels he can work the same magic again.

“It’s not as big a jump as you think,” said Black, who took over as president and CEO of the 130,000-square-foot science/performing arts/theater complex in early March. He replaced Michael Hanes, who retired from the post after 10 years.

“I see it as a challenge,” Black said. “Whitaker is reaching a point in its life where it has a great opportunity to reinvent itself.”

The core challenges he and his staff face, Black said in an interview, are to engage new audiences, particularly younger professionals, and to boost corporate support for the 18-year-old center.

“I think millennials are our ‘sweet spot,’ and also our challenge — how do we engage the millennials and make this a destination that becomes their home as well? How do we provide the programming for them that provides a destination for them?” he said.

About Ted Black

Black grew up in New Bethlehem, Clarion County, a town of just under 1,000 people.

He graduated in 1987 from Allegheny College, then graduated from law school from the University of Pittsburgh.

Black and his wife Amy have two sons, Andrew, 24, and Nathan, 21. They live in Lower Paxton Township.

Black impressed Whitaker leaders during the interview process with his knowledge of how to search for new audiences while maintaining the center’s goals, said Terry Lehman, chairman of the center’s board of directors.

“He understands that we’re competing for people’s discretionary spending dollars. There’s a lot of competition out there, whether it’s sports, the arts … and we need to have a product that’s competitive and compelling,” Lehman said.

Many nonprofit venues like Whitaker may rely too much on contributed dollars, said Lehman, a retired CPA.

“One of the things the board believes will happen under Ted is, we will have increased foot traffic and, as a tresult, increased earned revenue,” Lehman added. “It will be easier to get profitable than to always be looking to the community for additional support, although that will always be a part of it.”

The board vice chairman, Harrisburg attorney Stephen Gierasch, said Black showed himself to possess the right mix of creativity and past experience that center officials were seeking.

“Ted is the guy who a lot of us believed can be innovative but stay true to the history and mission of the Whitaker Center,” Gierasch said. “He is both an ‘ideas guy’ and someone who knows how to execute.”

Whitaker, which has the equivalent of 31 full-time employees and an annual budget of around $5 million, is losing money and has the same challenges of seeking grant money that all nonprofits face, but Black welcomes the new task.

“I think we’re challenged,” he said when asked about the center’s finances. “It takes a great deal to operate the Whitaker Center, and it takes a lot of what I call ‘bunt singles,’ keeping our eyes open for big opportunities, but also being mindful that smaller opportunities can add up to the same level of success. It depends heavily on being smart, being strategic.”

It’s also dependent on benefactors, whether corporations or individuals, to contribute to the center’s endowment, which now stands at around $8 million, Black said. And as the Whitaker’s new “Face of the Franchise,” the personable Black knows it’s important to grow that endowment.

The center has had many long-standing partnerships in the capital-area business community, Black noted: “We will continue to nurture those core relationships while actively seeking out technology companies, emerging businesses and ‘non-endemic’ brands to join Team Whitaker.”

Profits on ice

Black faced a major challenge when he was hired by the Penguins in 1999. Black, an attorney by trade, was vice president of business and legal affairs for the team, playing a role in guiding the Penguins back to profitability and working with Pittsburgh officials as the team built and opened a downtown arena in 2010.

“Their position was very, very tenuous, but it was a lot of fun,” he recalled. “You knew you were building something from the ground up, taking something that was a jewel, at least in the sports field, and taking it to another level.

“Those 10 years with the Penguins really fed in me a desire to help lead a turnaround,” Black said.

Black also served as general manager with FSN Pittsburgh, a regional sports television network (now known as ROOT Sports Pittsburgh). Then, from 2011 to 2015, Black served as president of another NHL team, the Buffalo Sabres.

He helped team owner Terry Pegula buy the franchise, but left the team in July 2015 when he and Pegula mutually agreed to part ways, according to press reports at the time. Black said he and the Buffalo owner parted amicably.

Black, who looks a bit like a former hockey player (he isn’t, but played football), sees possible untapped revenue streams for the Whitaker.

Young millennial professionals are moving back into urban areas like Harrisburg, giving his facility a growing audience just outside its door.

“That represents a great opportunity, but we can’t sit around and wait for the audience to come to us. We have to figure out ways that we can program Whitaker in a way that becomes more engaging,” he said.

The center has three venues: the Sunoco Performance Theater, which has about 700 seats and features everything from chorale and ballet performances to top-name performing artists; the Harsco Science Center, which has roughly 250 scientific and limited-engagement exhibits; and Select Medical Digital Cinema, formerly an IMAX theater, which features modern educational films and new releases.

Before Black’s arrival, Whitaker settled a lawsuit with cinema-projection company IMAX Corp., which had filed a $376,000 breach of contract suit against Whitaker.

In his new role, Black also sees opportunities to bring in more shows, featuring different genres, to the Sunoco center. Whitaker also is taking an in-depth look at the science center to see what its educational and entertainment attractions should be over the next five to 10 years, Black said.

He also sees opportunities in digital cinema, which can be used for things like PowerPoint presentations and live-streaming of off-site events, possibly attracting business conferences and other nontraditional audiences for Whitaker.

One area that excites Black as a possible revenue source is eSports, also known as competitive video gaming, which is increasingly popular with millennials, he said.

Whitaker’s digital cinema would be an ideal spot for live game-playing or for watching a tournament held somewhere else, said Black, who is exploring the theater’s potential to host such events.

Black added that having more millennials in the audience also could spur a new generation of regional companies to become Whitaker supporters.

One top official at a nonprofit venue north of Harrisburg, the Williamsport Community Arts Center, agreed that centers like his and the Whitaker Center face financial and other obstacles — but added that such facilities can play a major role in the lives of their communities.

“In my opinion, we have some of the best patrons, sponsors and donors in the nation, who not only appreciate and support the arts, but also see the value in having a facility of this capacity right in the middle of our downtown,” said Dave Whitnack, the Williamsport center’s operations director.

One challenge Whitnack and others at the Williamsport venue face is keeping up the center, which opened as a theater in 1928, closed, but was renovated and reopened in 1993.

While the public often assumes that ticket prices cover the costs of operations, they mostly just pay the fees for touring artists, so nonprofit facilities are heavily dependent on corporate sponsorship, Whitnack noted.

But he and other officials at his site constantly ask patrons what they want to see and encourage them to share their opinions, he said: “It’s our constant goal to have events that represent and serve the taste of our community as a whole. This is a big challenge, but one that we feel must be met.”

David O'Connor
Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com.

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