Eric Swanson Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Randall Christy was stunned when he learned last year that the Great Passion Play was about to shut down for good.
The founder of the Ada-based Gospel Station Network was a fan of the long-running tourist attraction in Eureka Springs, Ark., which uses a massive cast to tell the story of Christ’s life. When Christy heard that the nonprofit foundation that sponsors the play was on the verge of bankruptcy, he decided to step in.
Christy said he did not pray or consult friends before making his decision, because he knew the attraction needed his help.
“When I heard that the Great Passion Play was closed for good, it was heartbreaking, and I felt compelled to take action to try and save it,” Christy said Thursday.
‘It was close’
Christy traveled to Eureka Springs for a Dec. 21, 2012, meeting with the attraction’s board of directors and the bank that held the mortgage. They worked out a deal to save the attraction and pay off its $2.54 million debt, but there was a catch.
Bank officials wanted Christy to come up with $75,000 by Jan. 1 in order to stop the bank from foreclosing on the attraction.
Christy sent out an appeal to supporters of the Gospel Station Network, asking them to consider donating money to the cause. News outlets in Arkansas publicized his efforts to save the play, and donors rallied to help.
Ten days after the meeting, Christy presented $75,000 to the bank and launched the Gospel Station Network’s partnership with the Great Passion Play.
Christy arrived in time to save the attraction from ending its 46-year run, said assistant executive director Kent Butler.
“Just by the grace of God, we’ve been able to continue,” he said. “It was close.”
Getting ready for the season
But the task of saving the attraction was just beginning. The next step was getting ready for the 2013 season.
Christy became the Great Passion Play’s president and CEO in January, but he is serving without pay along with the chief administrator as a cost-saving measure.
The partners had to raise an additional $100,000 to finance the 2013 season, and they reached their goal by May with the help of individual donors and corporate sponsors. They wove more miracles and other scenes from Jesus’ life into the script of the play, boosting its audience appeal.
In another cost-saving move, the partners cut staff and replaced paid workers with volunteers. They also relied on hundreds of volunteers to paint, repair and upgrade the facilities.
Midway through the season, the partners have covered their bills, made all the bank payments and paid off the attraction’s back taxes, Christy said. He said attendance has grown by 15 percent to 20 percent, and costs have dropped by about 30 percent.
Christy said his efforts to restore the Great Passion Play’s financial health encountered little resistance from people familiar with the attraction.
“The people that are there — they just want the Passion Play to succeed, and it cannot succeed if it’s paying out more than it’s bringing in,” he said. “And they know that. They just never had anyone lay it all out for them and show them what the real scenario was.”
Butler, the assistant executive director, said the Gospel Station Network was a source of inspiration for attraction officials.
“They just really stepped up and infused our organization with a lot of strength,” he said.
Preparing for the future
With the current season under way, the partners are already looking toward the future. They are making plans to ensure the attraction’s financial stability by reaching out to corporate sponsors and other donors.
Other plans include building a petting park stocked with small animals, installing a children’s play area and expanding the Eastern Gate Marketplace.
Christy said those projects will cost about $125,000, and the partners are seeking corporate and individual sponsors to help cover the cost. He said officials hope to complete those features by 2014.
But the key to securing the attraction’s financial future is paying off its $2.54 million debt.
Christy said the partners are making progress toward retiring the debt, but he declined to speculate on how long that might take.
“Somebody might come along tomorrow and write a check for it,” he said. “It happens all the time. People that believe in a cause will give to the cause, and so I don’t want to put limits on God.”
Christy did say the partners have raised more than $200,000 in contributions so far.
Butler said retiring the debt is the top priority for attraction officials.
“It’s just something that’s very important to us — more important than ever,” he said.