When Millersville University took over the Pennsylvania Academy of Music building in downtown Lancaster in 2010, school officials made some pledges.
The facility would become a center of performance, arts and music for the whole community. Its sophisticated style and character would be preserved. And it would operate in the black.
Today, The Ware Center, as the edifice at 42 N. Prince St. is now known, boasts a calendar packed with concerts, movies and exhibits. Its classrooms hum with activity five days a week; crowds throng the lobby during Lancaster’s monthly First Friday events.
“It’s what everyone hoped would occur there,” said Lisa Riggs, president of the James Street Improvement District economic development nonprofit. “It’s almost a 24/7 facility.”
Harvey Owen, the center’s director, rattled off statistics testifying to the explosion of activity. By June, the site will have hosted 164 public events in 12 months and more than 600 private and corporate ones. Millersville runs 61 degree programs there, and more than 1,200 students pass through the doors each week.
The center has forged partnerships with dozens of community and arts organizations, whose leaders say they’re delighted with the results.
“Harvey’s been absolutely great for us,” said Joshua Rinier, managing director of Opera Lancaster, which moved its offices into The Ware Center last summer.
The opera started a community performance series at the center, which supplements its full-scale productions at Franklin & Marshall College‘s Roschel Center for the Performing Arts and elsewhere, Rinier said.
The Lancaster Literary Guild has put on half a dozen events at The Ware Center, executive director Betsy Hurley said.
“For us it’s ideal,” she said.
The Ware Center’s success is a welcome reversal of fortune for a building whose costs helped drive its first owner, the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, into bankruptcy.
The academy opened the $32 million building to great fanfare in 2008, but reports of chronic deficits surfaced soon afterward. Union National Community Bank, now Union Community Bank, took over the building in late 2009 after the academy defaulted on its mortgage.
In March 2010, Millersville University’s board voted to seek purchase of the building and began leasing it that June. In January 2011, Owen took over management.
The bankrupt academy, meanwhile, moved to Liberty Place, but closed for good at the end of March 2011. The same month, the state Department of General Services bought the building from the bank on Millersville’s behalf for $10.9 million.
Millersville needed a building for its graduate programs, which it was running in leased space at Liberty Place, Owen said. Buying The Ware Center probably saved the university $20 million to $30 million compared with the cost of building a graduate center, he said.
Running The Ware Center is Owen’s third career. He spent 18 years running trade shows for a publishing house in New York, then more then a decade in Lancaster as a consultant specializing in business turnarounds.
“He’s done an extraordinary job positioning The Ware Center as a public venue for such a broad range of arts and cultural experiences,” Riggs said. “He’s such an energetic, passionate advocate.”
Millersville’s board was adamant The Ware Center would have to pay its way, said Roger Bruszewski, the university’s vice president of finance.
The university wanted the center to operate in the black within three years, Bruszewski said. Within five years, any losses incurred in the first two years would be made up, he said.
The first target already has been hit, well ahead of schedule. It’s too early to tell if this year will offset last year’s startup costs, “but we’re doing well,” Bruszewski said.
Next month, work crews will begin renovations designed to better adapt The Ware Center to Millersville’s needs. The removal of several partitions will turn a set of small practice rooms into fewer but larger classrooms. New walls will separate the third-floor atrium from the corridors and administrative offices that surround it. A catering kitchen will make the facility better suited to hosting parties and receptions.
The cost, $1.4 million, was included in the $14.5 million the state appropriated for the acquisition, Owen said.
In September, the university renamed the building in honor of Paul and Judy Ware. The Lancaster philanthropists were the academy of music’s largest benefactor, underwriting much of the building’s construction cost through their charity, the Ferree Foundation.
Owen, a volunteer for SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, said he showed Bruszewski a sample business plan for the center in 2010, but assumed the university would hire an academic as director, not someone who would run it like a business. He was wrong.
“Roger said, ‘Let’s break the mold. Let’s do something different,'” Owen recalled.
The business plan provided a road map, but it has evolved, Owen said. Among other changes, he abandoned plans to put in a café, realizing it would compete with nearby businesses and reduce students’ incentive to explore the rest of downtown.
Owen said he wanted to host as many events as possible the first year, to see what worked and what didn’t. He brought in music, plays, dance, art, lectures, movies and more. The response was overwhelming, he said.
“Everything hit,” he said.
Plans call for being a little more selective in programming the 2012-13 season, he said. The center’s three-person staff isn’t large enough to handle 164 events year after year, he said.
There probably will be a little more than 100 events — more than enough to maintain The Ware Center’s newfound role in Lancaster’s cultural life.
“This town was ready for this building to be a community asset,” he said.