A few days after dedicating its new “North Park” marquee, the company that calls the Birch North Park Theatre home sent out a distressed letter yesterday to supporters to ask for donations.

The letter, signed by Lyric Opera San Diego directors Leon Natker and Jack Montgomery, along with the nonprofit’s board, said the company is in a “cash crisis” and will be “unable to continue” if it doesn’t receive $200,000 in donations in the next 90 days. It cites drops in ticket sales and donations, along with heavy discounts for the tickets the company has sold this season.

The company that is now Lyric Opera San Diego launched in 1979. It took over the decrepit theater on University Avenue and restored it last decade, reopening it in October 2005. The letter calls the company and its theater the “economic engine for the rebirth of North Park” and “a valuable temple of art and beauty.”

The company’s annual budget is $1.5 million. About $450,000 to $500,000 of that usually comes from donations, Natker told me this morning. When he first took over the company in the early 1990s, it had been in this kind of crisis positions, he said, but it spent a decade in the black after that.

The company paid for the new sign as part of a $162,918 loan from the city of San Diego Redevelopment Agency. Natker said the sign project was supposed to be part of the original renovation but was unaccountably left out by the initial developer and the city.

He’s been pushing for the city to fund the sign and a few other leftover improvements, and that request just now made it through the process to be funded. The company doesn’t have to make any payments on the redevelopment loan, he said, and won’t have to pay it back at all as long as the theater continues to operate for the next seven years.

“It’s not Lyric Opera’s money,” he said. “I couldn’t not have taken the money granted … and done anything else with it.”

The letter is infused with intense, dramatic metaphors like a fear the company could “become engulfed in a tidal wave of red ink,” and that without donors’ help, “the ship will founder and break up on the rocks of indifference.”

Natker drew parallels across any entertainment organization that relies on selling tickets, including the Chargers’ inability to broadcast their games on television because too few tickets had sold.

“From the Padres to your local movie theater, everybody is having trouble with ticket sales,” he said. “Everybody wants to wait for the last minute and buy half-price tickets. … And everybody thinks, there’s always so-and-so, they’ll write a big check and make it all OK.”

But Natker said he wants more people than just wealthy donors to give money to support organizations like his, and the buildings they own.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531 and follow her on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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