State Theatre leader takes new approach, vows ‘to get it done’

Jan. 11, 2018

John Swedeen is used to getting things built.

The retired CEO of StarMark Cabinetry is finding that sometimes restoring them takes building relationships first.

He became president of the nonprofit State Theatre Co. two years ago.

“I want to get this thing done,” he said of the project to restore the Phillips Avenue landmark, which opened in 1926 and closed in 1990.

That will take significantly more money – Swedeen estimates $5.5 million – and, he believes, a new strategy.

Fundraising consultant Brian Bonde and development coordinator Allison Weiland are helping guide an approach focused on high-dollar donations tied to naming rights.

“We’re talking to everybody, but we see this as a personal, family gift,” Swedeen said. “Somebody with a link to one of the key pillars of our campaign: the arts, restoration, the economic engine of downtown Sioux Falls, educational outreach.”

The hope is to secure $1.5 million to name the building itself. At one point, the plan was to name it in honor of Sylvia Henkin, but the arrangement didn’t come together. A portrait of Henkin will still be displayed in the lobby.

Other $500,000 donations would sponsor the balcony, main orchestra area in the theater, organ restoration and art restoration.

“It’s establishing and re-establishing relationships. I’m having two or three meetings a week,” Sweden said. “We’re not asking anybody for anything today.”

The annual gala fundraiser tied to the Academy Awards also is being reinvented and moved to September. It’s nicer weather, and more donors are in town, Swedeen said.

“It’s got to fit in the larger contex of our fundraising calendar,” he said. “We’re just getting momentum going,” and the hope is to have donations to announce.

“It won’t be Oscar-themed. We’ve done that several times, and it’s time for something new.”

In the two years he has led the organization, he has become used to answering a few common questions.

Where did the money go?

The State Theatre has raised and spent about $3 million.

“It all went into the building,” he said. “The lobby, the restrooms, the concessions. We had to tear all the guts out of the building, do HVAC work and get the asbestos out.”

Why aren’t you open for films?

It’s a function of fundraising.

“We don’t want to do it halfway. We want to get the whole building done,” Swedeen said. “A lot of people don’t understand these things take years.”

What are you going to do with the building?

The plan is to be a daily-use building, showing first-run movies, classic movies and use the building for live performances and event rental. An upstairs lounge will have additional concessions and a former apartment space has other potential uses, but nothing has been determined yet.

What Swedeen doesn’t call much attention to is that he’s funding this segment of the campaign himself.

“I want to get this thing done. I’m writing the check. Checks,” he said, adding that way he can tell donors 100 percent of their contributions will go into the building.

“I’m irked. I’m annoyed … that this isn’t done and operating,” he said. “It’s the people’s theater. It’s a gift to the city. We want to fill a niche that’s not filled. When you walk in, it’s different, it’s unique. I’m going to get it done.”

State Theatre leader takes new approach, vows ‘to get it done’

A new fundraising strategy and signature event are designed to finally get the State Theatre restored.

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