Panida changes guard at top post

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Outgoing Panida Theater executive director Karen Bowers, who has been in her post for the past 26 years, stands beside the historic downtown marquee with new executive director Barry Bonifas, who came on board on Aug. 29.(Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — The baton has been passed at the Panida Theater, marking a new chapter in the downtown landmark’s illustrious, 86-year history.

Many of the most notable achievements have taken place during the tenure of outgoing executive director Karen Bowers, who has spent the past 26 years gently guiding what was a much-loved but moribund movie house away from the brink of disaster toward its current status as Sandpoint’s premier performance venue.

The process was painstakingly slow, but scrupulously sure. Driven almost entirely by community donations, the theater managed to burn its mortgage after a 10-year fundraising drive.

The theater Bowers lovingly refers to as “the Old Girl” was dressed up and renovated in bits and pieces as local largesse was combined with grant dollars and donations from the annual Holly Eve fundraiser to repair a leaking roof, restore seats in the auditorium, replace a 1920s-vintage swamp cooler with modern air-conditioning, turn a coal delivery ramp into dressing rooms and replace the broom closet-sized bathrooms with more spacious men’s and women’s restrooms in the lobby. Just for starters.

Most recently, a multi-year, $450,000 grant from the Sandpoint Urban Renewal Agency made it possible to begin even larger restorations, including returning the First Avenue marquee to its original glory, repairing and replacing doors and windows and replastering and painting the exterior of the theater.

After several years of raising money for the project, the theater now is within striking distance of paying off a state-of-the-art digital projection system — equipment that was delivered about a week ago and is in the process of being installed.

It is into this busy environment that incoming executive director Barry Bonifas makes his entrance. Bonifas, who started as executive director on Aug. 29, comes to the position with a formidable background in theater and arts organization management. He began his career as an educator at San Jose State, the University of Idaho and Western Washington University, before moving into the arts milieu, where he spent more than 40 years — half of that time as CEO — managing symphonies, dance companies and festivals.

His résumé also includes two major theater restorations — the 1,500-seat Alberta Bair Theater in Billings, Mont., and the equally large Mt. Baker Theater in Bellingham, Wash.

Bowers and Bonifas sat down last week to talk about the transition and share perspectives on where the Panida Theater is at this inflection point, as well as where it might be headed in the near future.

Q. Looking back and looking forward, how comfortable are you both with this changing of the guard in the executive director post?

Bowers: I’m feeling very confident that Barry can take this to the next level. I’ve taken it to many levels, but I couldn’t be the kind of executive director who could take it to new ones.

Bonifas: It’s important to remember that, for the last 26 years, without Karen and Bill (Lewis — Panida technical director), this theater might not have survived.

Q. Where is the Panida in its current stage of evolution?

Bowers: It’s at a very stable place, financially. We’ve got a successful movie series and incredible presenters who bring in a wide variety of things. And we’ve accomplished so much in the way of restoration and renovation — the projects are innumerable.

Bonifas: There are several stages in the growth of any non-profit, from immature to sophisticated. I’d say the Panida is in the middle at this point as far as internal organization and board governance. The building is wonderful, but we’re in the middle there, too, in terms of restoring it and adding technical equipment to the stage.

Q. Do you have a wish list for technical upgrades?

Bonifas: That depends a lot on the SURA grant. From my perspective, the entire stage needs to be rebuilt — it’s too high — and it needs to be re-equipped. The curtain is great, but behind the curtain, there’s a lot of old stuff that needs to be replaced.

Q. The outside of the building has been fixed up — how are things, overall, on the inside?

Bowers: Most of the seats we replaced around the time I started now need to be refurbished. The good news is that, when we put them in, there will be more room between the rows. We’re also going to be getting up into the ceiling to see if repairs are needed there — that’s next on the list. If it does need repairs, the majority of the SURA money goes there.

Bonifas: In the terms of the auditorium and the lobby, generally speaking, they’re in remarkable shape. But the theater needs cleaning. It has 86 years of accumulated dirt and grime. I’ve done two theater restorations and I’ve seen how those plaster and wall guys can work magic and really make a theater shine.

Q. How have the usage statistics changed over the years in terms of the number of events held in the theater? Do you see opportunities for more growth?

Bowers: When I first came in, we had one or two things going on each month. This past fiscal year, we had 153 events in the theater, with something going on consistently every week. For a town of 7,000 people, that’s a lot going on in one place, especially with so many venues in town and more being added all the time. I do think we have opportunity for growth in the Panida Little Theater. We had 62 usages in that space last year — we could have three times that amount going on in there.

Bonifas: I want to talk to all of our sister organizations — like The Festival at Sandpoint and the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint — and see what we can do together that benefits all of us. I want to expand our programming and upgrade our existing programs. And I plan to cultivate new users of the building. There are all kinds of things that could be done in the theater, including presenters and business meetings.

Q. The board of directors obviously plays a big part in the success of any non-profit organization. How is the relationship between management and the Panida board?

Bowers: That’s the most difficult part of this job. The board, at times, hasn’t realized what happens, on a day-to-day basis, at the theater.

Bonifas: Again, I think it’s in that middle stage. It’s not immature, but it’s not sophisticated. You can’t build a good, community board without a lot of training. And one of the first things you do is define the responsibilities of the board versus the responsibilities of the staff and you train the board to work on those responsibilities. It takes a lot of teamwork and delineation of roles. A quarterback has his role and a defensive end has his role — and they’re not the same. If a board member volunteers to be an usher, for instance, they need to understand that they’re not a board member while they’re an usher.

Q. And how about the relationship between the Panida and the community?

Bowers: The Panida is totally established in the community. Before the community purchased the theater, people knew about it, but they didn’t care. Now, the Panida Theater is invaluable to them. In my mind, we have become Sandpoint’s venue of choice.

Q. Barry, how much did you know about the theater’s history and the fact that it was actually purchased by the community coming into the job?

Bonifas: My relationship with the theater goes back to the very beginning of that chapter. When the three Panida Moms (Jane Evans, Laurel Wagers and Susan Bates-Harbuck) led the community effort to buy the theater, I was at the University of Idaho. Marilyn Sabella called me and asked me to come up and look at the building. I said, ‘Yeah, this is definitely worth saving.’”

Q. Karen, what will you miss most about the Panida?

Bowers: I’ll miss the camaraderie with Bill Lewis and certain board members over the years, such as Erik Daarstad, Deb McShane, Michael Boge, John Reuter, Danielle Packard and Steve Garvan. And I will always miss our wonderful, supportive audiences and presenters.

Q. Twenty-six years is a great run — how do you view following that legacy as you enter the job, Barry?

Bonifas: I see it as a gift — one that happened very quickly. I didn’t even hear about this job until about three weeks ago and now I’ll probably finish off my career here. But I can’t guarantee that I’ll be here 26 years.

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