Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre opens dorm for out-of-town students

| Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010

The sun was shining on Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in Lawrenceville when its leaders cut a ribbon Thursday morning to formally open Byham House -- a new dormitory for out-of-town high school age students at the ballet's school -- and also announced the fourth consecutive year of balanced budgets.

The first group of 15 students actually moved into Byham House, at 3501 Liberty Ave., over Labor Day weekend. One student came from Japan. The others are from Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and West Virginia.

"Living at the Byham House is very nice and the only way I could go to PBT School," says Ethan Lee, 17, of North Canton, Ohio. "With money being tight, renting an apartment was not an option for me. The rooms here are surprising large, and it's so close I can walk to the school and, after a hard day, take a bus for three stops to get home."

Lee is on a full scholarship for his studies but pays a dormitory fee of about $775 per month, which covers his furnished room, meals and part of the costs of the house director and her resident assistant.

"We've had so many young dancers at our five-week summer program tell us they'd love to come here year-round, but we didn't have supervised housing near our school. There was clearly a demand," says Aron Rinsema, school operations manager.

There are 48 students enrolled in the high school division, for whom supervised housing is an issue, out of more than 800 in all divisions, which includes student dancers from age 2 through adulthood.

The ballet acquired the building, the rectory of the former St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, in November 2009. Purchase and renovation of the building cost about $1 million and was funded by grants from the Byham family, the Adams Foundation, the Wagner Family Charitable Trust and the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The ballet raised $1.5 million for capital improvements. Other projects included installing Harlequin sprung floors in all the studios at the headquarters of the ballet and school at 2900 Liberty Ave. The new floors are a big improvement for the dancers' health, says artistic director Terrence S. Orr.

Achieving four consecutive years of balanced operating budgets is a remarkable turnaround for the ballet, which as recently as 2005 was forced to dip into the normally off-limits part of its endowment to avoid financial disaster.

The ballet's balanced budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30 was achieved in the face of downward trends in several revenue streams, including ticket sales, giving to the annual fund and government funding.

"We got hit, like many organizations seeing these downward trends, but were able to adjust our operating budget during the season, reducing our spending by about $350,000," says ballet executive director Harris N. Ferris. "Our projected budget of $7.6 million was basically flat from the preceding season, but by the end of the year we were able to come in under $7.3 million."

In addition to operating in the black, the ballet has paid down more than a third of the debt that existed when Ferris arrived in the spring of 2006, and it is now under $1 million.

"It feels great," Ferris says. "This increases the organization's integrity in the eyes of funders. I have to give credit to our great board leadership for this progress."

The ballet's strategic plan calls for additional expansion of the school. The board already has raised 15 percent of a $4.5 million plan for expanding studio capacity, doubling enrollment and expanding dance and exercise programs for the community.

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