Continuing discussion of conference fees for the Camden Opera House will weigh the importance of the revenue to the town-owned facility against the value of discounting fees to keep large conferences in town.

Opera House conference fees have been a topic of discussion at two Select Board meetings in December. The discussion is expected to continue at the Jan. 23 Select Board meeting. The agenda for that meeting has not yet been confirmed.

The annual setting of Opera House fees usually draws little public attention, but has become a focal point following PopTech's announcement that its 2018 conference will take place at Point Lookout in Northport. PopTech was born in Camden, and for 21 years has held its annual conference at the Opera House and other downtown venues.

On Dec. 24, board member Alison McKeller encouraged comments on her Facebook page about "how much the Opera House, which is town owned and operated, should be discounting rates for groups like PopTech, CIFF, and the Camden Conference". Her question generated over 40 comments from 18 people, with a range of opinions.

McKellar said in an interview Dec. 29 that she does not consider herself an expert on the business of the Camden Opera House. She would like to see the Select Board engage in a workshop to learn more about the many aspects of its operation.

She found that posting the question on her Facebook page brought out people who are passionate on both sides of the issue. She hopes that means additional people will volunteer for the Opera House Committee.

McKellar would like all of the conferences that use the Opera House to know that "the vast majority of Camden residents are proud to have the conferences as part of our community." She said many people come to Camden for a conference, discover the town, and come back to visit or to live here. She said she leans towards policies that will keep the conferences in Camden, and she does not think that raising conference fees to increase Opera House revenue is the way to go at this time.

McKellar said she sees bringing in new conferences as a possible option for growing revenues. She said the ticket price for a film makes CIFF the most accessible conference for residents, and thinks the idea of discounts for Camden residents to the other conferences could be a trade-off for discounted Opera House fees.

Opera House rentals are projected to earn $80,000 from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018. Kerry Hadley, Opera House Manager, said the conference fees bring in about one-quarter of that revenue. Currently, the conferences and all non-profit organizations receive a 40 percent discount on the rental fee. The Select Board discussion is now focusing on whether an additional discount should be added for the conferences, which bring large numbers of participants to town, and benefit local businesses.

The Opera House is part of the town budget, and its employees are town employees. The 2017-18 budget for the facility is about $200,000 after revenues. The cost of running the town office building, which includes the Opera House, is budgeted separately. Some personnel related costs are shared between the Opera House and municipal building budgets.

Hadley explained Dec. 29 that the Opera House fees for a four-hour commercial event on a Saturday night are in line with other venues. The fee, including staffing, is $1,300 for the 489 person auditorium. The charge for other venues includes variable staffing costs. The 350-seat Strand Theater's fee is about $1,800; the 375-seat Boothbay Opera House, about $2,500, the 800-seat Waterville Opera House about $1,800, and the  410-seat Rockport Opera House, about $800. Hadley mentioned that the Camden Opera House fees include the cost of advertising in a glossy, four-color brochure, on the website and through social media. She said the Opera House conducted a sustainability study designed by the University of Maine, which confirmed that it does not have the means to become a self-sustaining entity.

Hadley has been Opera House Manager for 16 years. When she began, the Opera House was strictly a rental venue, and hosted 11 events each year. She was the sole employee, and her position was 10 hours a week. The Opera House did not have up-to-date technology or equipment. Her initial focus was safety issues that had to be addressed. Early, on the Opera House tried out presenting a show for children and families, Avner the Eccentric, and it was very successful, she said. Ever since then, the venue has sought out and added shows to present to its schedule.

Sixteen years later, the Opera House presents about 45 shows a year. In 2016 and 2017, the shows included Natalie MacMaster, Peter Yarrow, Las Cafetera from Los Angeles, Kate Schrock, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lunasa, CJ Chenier, Livingston Taylor, Jonathan Edwards. Lucie Arnaz, a Streisand restrospective, Peacheaters (an Allman Brothers tribute). Family and children's events include Jungle Jack Hanna, and theatrical shows, including Forever Frozen, Beethoven's Wig.

Film showings include a Winter Family Fun Series, a Date night series, 11 monthly CIFF Selects documentaries, and independent films, including the "Island Zero" premiere.

Dance included Body Traffic from Los Angeles, and performances of six local dance companies. The Opera House presents two to three plays and musicals each year, and hosts numerous municipal and non-profit events.

The Opera House operates with a small staff, including Hadley, Dave Morrison, the Facility and Technical Director and Karina Shorten, Opera House Assistant and Box Office Manager.

Morrison joined the Opera House in 2004, and since then has overseen upgrades to sound and theater light systems, restoration of the 1928 Steinway grand piano, and  installation of a state-of-the art film system. He oversees all of the work involved in hosting the conferences, which for PopTech totals 135 hours, CIFF 158 hours and the Camden Conference 108 hours. Shorten oversees the box office, and event promotion.