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Pendleton’s Vert stands empty most days

Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on October 13, 2017 8:01PM

Last changed on October 16, 2017 10:15AM

The Vert Auditorium is currently home to the Oregon East Symphony, but was only used 24 days all of last year.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

The Vert Auditorium is currently home to the Oregon East Symphony, but was only used 24 days all of last year.

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Mary Jo Price, who attended Friday’s Rivoli Theater ribbon cutting, ushered at the Rivoli as a teenager.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney

Mary Jo Price, who attended Friday’s Rivoli Theater ribbon cutting, ushered at the Rivoli as a teenager.

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Andrew Picken, president of the Rivoli Restoration Coalition board, and Jason Terry, of Kirby Nagelhout  Construction, man the scissors at Friday’s ribbon cutting in front of the Rivoli.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney

Andrew Picken, president of the Rivoli Restoration Coalition board, and Jason Terry, of Kirby Nagelhout Construction, man the scissors at Friday’s ribbon cutting in front of the Rivoli.

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Andrew Picken, president of the Rivoli Restoration Coalition board, speaks to a crowd of people who attended Friday’s ribbon cutting.

Staff photo by Kathy Aney

Andrew Picken, president of the Rivoli Restoration Coalition board, speaks to a crowd of people who attended Friday’s ribbon cutting.

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The Vert Auditorium hosts symphony concerts, ballroom dancing and the occasional wedding and a funeral.

It also sits empty for most of the year.

The 800-seat auditorium is a part of the Vert Complex, an 80-year-old building in Pendleton that also houses a club room and second, smaller theater.

The building has more than $1.6 million in deferred maintenance and City Manager Robb Corbett said the Vert is in need of marketing and promotion. But with the city’s budget stretched among its many other infrastructure needs, major changes are not imminent.

“A Century of News and People in the East Oregonian: 1875-1975” was unsparing in its assessment of the man who funded the Vert’s construction.

“(John) Vert was one who did little for his community during his life but who enriched it at his death,” author Gordon MacNab wrote. “His biggest role in the news before 1927, in nearly a half-century in Umatilla County, was the time he threw an egg at a minister who was advocating for prohibition.”

After his wife Mary died in 1927, Vert decided to use some of his considerable fortune to erecting a memorial to her. Mary was an educator, community organizer and prominent socialite.

Upon his own death in 1934, Vert bequeathed $76,400 to the city to build the memorial. With the help of the Pendleton school system and a federal grant, the Vert Memorial Community Building was dedicated in 1937.

Today, the Vert is co-managed by Pendleton Parks and Recreation and the city’s facility department. It is still in operation, although business is slow.

According to city calendars, the Vert Auditorium was booked for 30 days in 2015. Subtracting the days the Vert is closed for holidays, that’s equivalent to an 8 percent occupation rate. 2016 was worse — the auditorium was rented for just 24 days.

As an individual facility, the Vert Club Room was actually rented at a higher rate — 43 days in 2015 and 48 days in 2016. Those numbers grow when adding in people or organizations that rented the club room and little theater as a package.

The Vert has no section or line item in the city’s budget, but Facilities Manager Glenn Graham said he budgets about $60,000 to cover operational costs at the complex each year.

That money mostly goes toward utilities, which are used frugally to keep costs down. Unless there’s an event, Graham said the auditorium’s thermostat is set to 50 degrees, just high enough to keep the facility from freezing during the winter.

The Vert’s annual budget doesn’t address the $1.6 million in deferred maintenance on the complex, the highest amount of any city-owned facility.

Graham said the building needs include new electrical work, heating and air conditioning, doors, and an elevator to the balcony for patrons with disabilities. But any significant remodeling would require the facility meet current fire codes, which means expenditures would have to include money for fire suppression sprinklers and a modern fire alarm system.

“This ol’ girl needs some help,” he said.

Aid for the Vert has been discussed in fits and starts, but nothing has come to fruition so far.

The Pendleton City Council considered adding Vert renovations to a 2014 facilities bond proposal, but a missed advertising deadline meant the question never made it to the voters.

At the urging of former Pendleton Convention Center Manager Pat Kennedy, the council agreed to pay a consultant $12,000 to bring six new shows to the Vert in 2016.

But the contract was never carried out due to Kennedy’s retirement. The position experienced some turnover, and the city never finalized the deal. The consultant was never paid and the shows never happened.

The city hired Pat Beard to helm the convention center in July, and although he sees some crossover between managing the former Oregon National Guard Armory and the Vert, Corbett didn’t want to saddle him with an extra responsibility.

Corbett said there’s no current staffing capacity to further promote the Vert and the city’s budget is stretched thin to cover Pendleton’s other infrastructure needs like water, sewer and streets.

“We’re not ignoring it,” he said. “We’re just not talking about it right now.”

If the Vert was to see a large influx of activity, Corbett said he would be worried about how it would affect the facility’s current programming.

Corbett referenced the Pendleton Recreation Center, which caused some consternation earlier this year when REACH Pendleton, a youth outreach nonprofit, forced some recreation programs out of the rec center.

Ironically, the move benefited Vert Little Theater, which took on the gymnastics program during the rec center shuffle.

Although REACH has since moved out of the rec center, gymnastics is staying in the room until further notice.

Vert won’t long be the only theatre in town.

After seven years of planning and campaigning, the Rivoli Theater is ready to begin its transformation into a modern day performing arts center.

Andrew Picken, the president of the Rivoli Restoration Coalition, spoke to a small assembly of people on Friday as the coalition celebrated the beginning of the first phase of construction at the old movie theater with a ribbon cutting ceremony on Main Street.

“What’s different now is that we’re not talking about what we’re going to do ... we’re talking about what’s happening,” he said.

Work crews with Kirby Nagelhout Construction have already set up a construction entrance and are starting work on disassembling the balcony and other wooden platforms in the nearly century-old building, excavating the floor to create more space and installing additional support elements. The first phase of construction is expected to happen over the next three years.

Mary Jo Price was a ribbon cutting attendee with intimate knowledge of the venue. In the 1950s, a teenage Price was an usher and candy shop clerk for the original Rivoli.

Seeing the stage and balcony brought back memories for Price, and she was excited to see the renovation commence.

Coalition member J.D. Kindle wasn’t able to attend to the ribbon cutting, but he’s familiar with both the Rivoli and the Vert.

As a the executive director of the Oregon East Symphony, the Vert’s only permanent tenant, Kindle has taken the symphony’s board members on tours of the Rivoli.

The Vert Auditorium is an imperfect venue for the symphony — the manual lighting system is a hassle, the acoustics push stage sound toward the rafters and the outdated heating and cooling system cause the symphony’s piano to go out of tune.

But that doesn’t mean the symphony is packing its strings and woodwinds for the Rivoli. The Vert provides office space to the symphony, and although Kindle said a chamber orchestra could fit, a full symphonic band is “nigh impossible” on the Rivoli’s smaller stage.

Picken declined to answer a question on whether a completed 361-seat Rivoli would vie for events with the Vert, but Corbett pondered the possibility.

When he was hired in 2013, the prospect of a Rivoli-Vert competition was a hot topic as the city considered buying the Rivoli on behalf of the Vert.

The topic has continued to come up as the city has donated more than $165,000 through the Pendleton Development Commission toward the Rivoli.

But Corbett said he doesn’t know what the future will bring once the Rivoli is completed. His hope is that the symphony, the Pendleton School District and other frequent renters will remain at the Vert.

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Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.







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