Mountain Laurel Center Tries Again

BUSHKILL, PA (AP) — The Mountain Laurel Center is back in business.

The $35 million performing arts venue in the Poconos opened in 2003 but shut down just a few months later because of financial problems. It planned to announce Wednesday a compressed summer schedule of 29 performances by a range of artists, including ZZ Top, Crosby Stills and Nash, Ricky Skaggs and Grammy-winning salsa star Johnny Pacheco.

The complex, which was built with the help of a $15 million state grant, is reopening with a fresh infusion of public money, including $500,000 from the state and $750,000 in projected annual revenue from a new hotel tax in Pike County.

"In an arts organization, you have to push the rock up the hill every year," said Chief Executive Officer Richard T. Bryant, brought in last year to try to turn things around.

Bryant made sure to program plenty of blues, pop, rock, country, jazz and Latin music, genres that typically attract healthy audiences, in hopes of meeting ambitious attendance goals and buying more time to stabilize the center's finances.

Mountain Laurel opened in August 2003 on the 675-acre wooded site of Unity House, a lakeside retreat for the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union from the early 1900s until its abandonment in 1989.

Officials had hoped the defunct resort about 95 miles west of New York City would be reborn as a fine arts venue for classical and contemporary music, dance and Broadway-style theater.

But the center missed most of the peak tourist season that year and fewer than 20 events were held before it was forced to close shop, drowning in debt and unable to raise money.

Bryant refers to the period as the center's "false start."

He said its biggest mistake was taking on so much debt; more than half of the construction costs, or $17 million, was financed with bonds. Most successful performing arts centers don't build with borrowed money, he said.

"They didn't know the business they were in. Real arts organizations don't have balance sheets that are capable of paying loans back," said Bryant, an arts management veteran who helped launch the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Philadelphia's Kimmel Center and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in California.

He said the non-profit center, like many other arts organizations, will never be able to sustain itself, but will always have to rely on fund-raising to balance its budget.

The center's facilities include the Tom Ridge Pavilion, an outdoor auditorium with 2,500 covered seats and space on the lawn for as many as 7,000 more patrons, and the cabaret-style Lakehouse Theater, which seats 400.

Bob Uguccioni, the Poconos' top tourism official, said the upcoming concert season will be a crucial test of Mountain Laurel's ability to sustain itself.

If successful, "that will help alleviate a lot of people's concerns about it," he said. "If it isn't, that may be something that may indeed cause the thing to fall apart."

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, 2005 Grammy winner for best salsa/merengue album, opens the season June 24. It will be the first performance in the Tom Ridge Pavilion since Labor Day, when it briefly reopened for concerts by the Beach Boys, B.B. King and Blue Oyster Cult.

The center predicts that more than 65,000 people will attend this summer's concerts. Tourists, full-time residents of the Poconos and arts lovers from western New Jersey are the center's target markets.