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Wealthy Theatre embraces the future to preserve the past

Erin Wilson

Erin Wilson

Historic Wealthy Theatre is a much-beloved neighborhood asset, and its latest round of sustainable upgrades position it to stay that way for the long term. Anya Zentmeyer finds out why a change of lights could spark infinite possibilities in Eastown.
For Eastown’s historic Wealthy Theatre, LED stage lighting has the potential to change everything.
Thanks to a $10,000 grant awarded by Wisconsin-based stage lighting manufacturer, Electronic Theatre Controls, Wealthy Theatre is closer to making that revolutionary leap with the ETC ION 2000 Lighting Console.
The ETC ION 2000 Lighting Console is the first step toward Wealthy Theatre’s ultimate goal of becoming the first ever theater to convert to entirely LED stage lighting. The hardware allows for “almost infinite expandability,” Wealthy Theatre Director Erin Wilson says, along with a significant reduction in energy costs and a lifetime turnaround that pays for the initial investment.  
Though LED lights are more expensive to purchase than incandescents, they reduce the consumption of energy itself by 90 percent for white light, the most basic and efficient category of stage lighting.
“When you start mixing colors, (LED) goes off the charts,” Wilson says, helping reduce energy consumption anywhere between 95 and 97 percent.
He says this is because the gels incandescents use to create color cut out 80 percent of the effective lighting, creating a need for something like 15 bulbs to create the same primary green color that one LED can provide with the push of just one button. The simplicity of a console versus the manual labor of changing incandescents would also cut down on turnover time in between events and eliminate any safety hazards that come alongside that process.
Plus, LED lights last much longer than incandescents, which Wilson says doesn’t entirely pay for the cost of the lights themselves, but makes up the difference when maintenance is factored in. Over their 10-year lifespan, the theater would save about $2,000 per instrument with LED lighting, since they wouldn’t have to replace the circuitry the same way they would incandescent lamps. For a full inventory, Wilson says, the fiscal impact is huge.
“It’s not just the energy reduction,” Wilson says. “It’s an infinitely more capable system.”
Wilson first connected with ETC through John Hyatt, owner of a theatrical supplies dealer in Grand Rapids. Hyatt went to college with ETC’s CEO Fred Foster and set up a meeting in Middleton, Wis. where the company is based. 
Though Wilson went into the meeting expecting to talk more about LED lighting and potential support, he says Foster’s first question was about the social impact and overall role Wealthy Theatre has in the neighborhood.  For both Wilson and Hyatt, Foster’s focus on the cultural significance of the theater was a surprising and encouraging sign of aligned values.  
“Fred is somebody who is definitely successful with business, but has a social conscience, too,” Hyatt says. “Preserving theater heritage and preserving and growing a neighborhood are ideas that rang true with him and with me.”
Wealthy Theatre began drafting an overall sustainability proposal in 2007, seeking to address what Wilson says are the two fundamental challenges of any historic venue: containing costs while still remaining relevant.  
In 2011, Wealthy Theatre successfully met its $550,000 goal in a capital campaign dedicated to helping the theater incorporate new technologies in order to reach more sustainable usage thresholds. This included a grant from Steelcase designated as an assistive fund, which allows Wealthy Theatre to shave off usage costs for event producers who Wilson says are very near to the theater, starting in the Baxter neighborhood.  
“I think that if you’re trying to do the right thing in Grand Rapids, Mich., you’re going to be dealt a very good hand,” says Wilson, who has also worked closely with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to ensure all of the greening efforts made still work to preserve Wealthy’s status as a landmark in one of Grand Rapids historic districts.
He says Grand Rapids’ City Planning Department is more forward thinking and innovative than planning departments in many other cities facing the same challenge, and help from both the city and local experts have allowed them to navigate through an unprecedented series of changes.
“I don’t think you would get this kind of response from a lot of other cities,” he says. “It’s not because there is a detachment or lack of concern, it’s the opposite. I think there are a lot of cities where historic places are of marginal importance, and Grand Rapids is one of the few places this place had a prayer.”
Rhonda Baker, the Grand Rapids historic preservation specialist that worked alongside Wealthy Theatre to help approve the solar array project, says in this case, historic preservation and sustainability go hand in hand.
“Frankly, you can’t get more green than historic preservation as its entire goal is recycling and preserving,” Baker says. “The solar panel request that Erin brought to the Historic Preservation Commission was well thought out and sensitively located in a manner that isn’t obtrusive or distracting to either the theater or the neighborhoods historic identity.”
In a way, Wilson says, Baker and the Historic Preservation Commission act alongside the staff as guardians of Wealthy Theatre. They both want to see longevity and success for the theater without losing its defining identity as both a historic establishment and a place where every kind of person feels comfortable gathering in together. 
Maintaining Wealthy’s identity, in fact, is at the heart of every greening effort happening there.
“It is a good test: if a venue exists in a neighborhood, but were out of reach for the residents of that very neighborhood, it would be the first indication that a significant identity crisis existed,” Wilson says. “…We ensure accessibility not only by allowing any legal speech imaginable, but also by maintaining the lowest possible financial barriers to usage. One without the other is far less useful.”
By cutting overhead costs, namely utility costs, they can avoid raising rates for usage and ensure accessibility to even the most financially vulnerable. It enables the creation of the kind of arts, culture and conversation that in part is reflective of the neighborhood where the theater resides.
“There have been some very productive discussions and there is a palpable sense that people who have lived here for generations stand on that stage and they feel able to be very honest with the entire room,” Wilson said. “I don’t think that can just happen. I think people do feel welcome here.”
Rick DeVos, who sat down with Wilson during the capital campaign and made a financial contribution to the greening efforts, says Grand Rapids needs more places like Wealthy Theatre.
“I’m a big believer in Grand Rapids and continuing to build a creative and interesting culture here and Wealthy Theatre plays a really interesting role in that, in a rapidly developing neighborhood,” he says. “…Any place like (Wealthy Theatre) is a convening place that can do interesting programming and can draw in a variety of audiences. We need a public square and it’s definitely a public square.” 
Though the ETC ION 2000 Lighting Console will help to ensure the bottom line, Wealthy Theatre still needs $100,000 to purchase a full LED inventory. Wilson says it’s not that they are actively starting a new campaign, this is just the first time they’ve been able to quantify the amount.
If Wealthy does make a full conversion to LED stage lighting, it will not only set a new precedent for historic American theaters nationwide, but also open doors to even more dramatic sustainability measures, like potentially operating entirely off of solar energy provided by additional solar arrays.
It’s an ambitious goal, but Wealthy Theatre has a lot of those, some of which they have already managed to reach.
This is because Wealthy Theatre and Community Media Center, the organization that operates it, are driven by the idea that it is a community asset -- a place that does not belong to any one individual or group, but rather, a complex collective community that needs Wealthy Theatre to keep its doors open.
So Wilson, the staff at Wealthy Theatre and the CMC are making sure they do. 
“The moment you stop taking care of this place and doing everything that’s necessary to keep it open and keep it as it is, then you don’t deserve it any longer, not if you lose sight of that for a minute,” he says. “This has got to be here forever.”

Anya Zentmeyer is freelance reporter in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. She can be reached at anya.zentmeyer@gmail.com or visit her website at wordpress.anyazeee.com.

Photography by Adam Bird
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