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Little Theatre, big changes

It’s a wrap as founder Bill Coppard moves on


The Little Theatre has been a successful and integral part of downtown Rochester since 1982 --- long enough for its co-founder, Bill Coppard, to have made a number of observations about issues facing the community.

He's had no qualms over the years about sharing his informed opinions and ideas for solutions with those in the position to effect change. Some no doubt think Coppard a visionary, while others would probably call him a troublemaker. But maybe all would agree that his intimate knowledge of and respected position in our city make his ideas worth contemplating.

Last week's installment of the interview with Coppard primarily focused on the state of independent film exhibition, and as the first part wound down, he was reflecting on the importance of giving back to the community. This week, the Little's retired executive director discusses what he would do if he were mayor, why he really shouldn't be, and the satisfaction of turning your dreams into reality, even if others believe it just can't be done.

City: Is the Little obligated to pay real estate property taxes?

Coppard: Well, we're a 501(c)(3), and --- you know, I'm not saying it's guaranteed that we would pay taxes, but traditionally, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation that owns real estate doesn't pay taxes. We didn't want to do that. I didn't feel that we should take the theater off the tax rolls.

But the theater's problems weren't because we had to pay real estate taxes. Our problems were generated by the competition with the suburban multiplexes that didn't allow us to show films on an exclusive basis anymore. And it's a problematic situation with urban businesses, where similar services can be found more conveniently in the suburbs at a comparable price. How do you counteract that? You have to eliminate some of the barriers, one of which is the parking situation.

It's sort of angered me --- you know, I've always been the person against the East End Festivals. Nobody's ever looked into the books of the East End Festival, but it's a private corporation. If you're going to use public streets for personal use, then there has to be some benefit for the public attached to it. And there has to be some accountability. You can't shield yourself by saying, "I'm a private corporation." No. You're using public streets, you're closing down public streets.

City: And not everybody in the East End benefits from the festivals. The screens at the Little practically go dark those nights.

Coppard: Yeah.

City: Does it bring people into the café?

Coppard: No. It hurts our business. But that isn't really the issue. I am willing to sacrifice business for the good of the whole community, not the good of a private corporation.

City: But the city likes it because it brings people downtown.

Coppard: Yeah, but the city's perception of what downtown needs to market itself is different from my perception. I think the solutions for downtown are not all that complicated. They need private investors. They have to make it more practical for private investors to come downtown and build more housing units. But interesting housing units. Who knows what the new mayor is going to do?

City: So who do you like for mayor, Bill?

Coppard: I won't put that on record.

City: Then what do you think should happen at City Hall?

Coppard: I think it's time for some major changes at City Hall. I'm not going to put the blame on anybody in particular. I think that Mayor Johnson made a wise decision not to run again. You're in that position, facing those kinds of problems, year in and year out, you face the same kind of frustration I am, you know? You're not making the kind of changes, you're not seeing the kind of progress you really want. And you're busting your ass.

And you got a vision. Maybe your vision isn't right, but it's your vision. And if you're not fulfilling your vision, it's a frustrating experience. So now it's time for somebody else's vision, whether it's Wade's vision or Tim's vision.

City: But often when there's a change in leadership, people feel that it's just a change in the face and nothing really gets done.

Coppard: Well, that's what can't happen. I think there has to be some major changes internally in the departments at City Hall. If you're running a department, it's your vision, in cooperation with the mayor. But I feel that a lot of people take working at City Hall for granted and they don't understand that you've got a responsibility to perform.

You have a wonderful opportunity to work for an employer who provides very good pay and very good benefits and very good retirement. So you've got to perform. And I think some of the people have frankly been there too long. I sit on the Board of Assessment Review.

City: Oh, you still do that?

Coppard: Yeah. I got elected to Chairman. That's why I don't want to move out of the city.

I think I did a really good job this year because --- I'm really an ombudsman for the City in a way, trying to understand the taxpayers' frustrations, trying to be a good mediator, and I think we were really successful doing that this year. But no one on City Council, in all the years I've been on the Board of Assessment Review, has ever visited the board to see how it performs. They appoint us, but nobody ever monitors us.

And what you're seeing is a constant decrease in the city's taxable value. Every time a house gets torn down, it's a loss of potential tax revenue. And it's happening more and more often. So the city is shrinking in its ability to pay its bills as the cost of running a government increases. There's got to be a more efficient way of running a city like Rochester.

I think that Mayor Johnson aggravated a lot of people when he started talking about consolidation of metro government. But the message, I think, was true: We have to find a more efficient way of running government. And we have to, as a community, make certain sacrifices to the benefit of the whole community. And that means giving up a little of your territory. Maybe consolidation of the fire departments.

Schools is really the thing that people cherish and they're not willing to get into --- not willing to lose control. There's probably a way of making schools more efficient. Through purchasing, for instance. Or do you really need a superintendent for every single district? There could probably be some consolidation of administrations but still maintain the independence.

But I don't see this community facing these big issues. I think Renaissance Square is a disaster. I really do. You're taking six acres of downtown real estate off the tax rolls. People are afraid to be naysayers to a project that's going to get millions of dollars in federal and state funds, it's going to create construction jobs. But I just don't think it's a well-planned project.

City: Whatever happened with the Cultural Center?

Coppard: I quit the Cultural Center Commission because I was really sort of angry at the mayor.

City: Is it still an ongoing thing?

Coppard: Yeah. The Cultural Commission is really a real estate developer; they own real estate, they sell real estate. They have one parcel left, at the corner of Gibbs and Main. And that's it; after that point I think they should disband the Cultural Commission.

Because the Cultural Commission generates income through the East End Garage. And that money can be used for downtown development as far as infrastructure --- streetlights, sidewalks, and things like that --- the city says they don't have money for, instead of spending the money on administration costs. It's not necessary, I don't think, anymore.

City: What are you going to do after your retirement takes effect on July 1?

Coppard: I'm going to hang out in the country for a while, fix up my house. Spend some time in New York at my little apartment.

You know, I don't want to be a volunteer, is one thing I won't be. I've sort of volunteered a lot of time and effort to the Little Theatre over many, many years.

City: But you know they're going to want to pick your brain.

Coppard: I don't want to be a volunteer or have any commitments. Whatever I'm in, I want to be involved in a really creative environment.

I think that's the hard part about Rochester is that it's really, really lost sight of who they are and where they want to be. It's a hard place to stay; there's just not that kind of creative excitement.

A lot of it has to do with the political environment. I don't think the young people are active enough in the political environment; they really don't care. How many people under 30 really care who's going to be elected mayor? How many people know who's on City Council or know that City Council has the potential to make lives better for city residents? They don't care. They're out for themselves.

City: It's not surprising that they don't care. Most of them are probably banking on the fact that they won't be living here in five years. Or whatever's happening doesn't directly affect their day-to-day life.

Coppard: Exactly. Exactly. I've always thought about running for political office. But I said, "No way." I think I'd have a hard time making the changes now.

City: I couldn't see that at all. That would be so frustrating for you.

Coppard: It would be a disaster. You know, I love the city. I feel it's got tremendous potential. I'm frustrated because I don't see the kind of enthusiasm that should be here for a city that has so many attributes.

City: Well, it's probably frustrating for everyone trying to get something done because everyone else has agendas of their own.

Coppard: We're very much a me-oriented society. I feel so fortunate in life. I really do. I've been able to make good money investing, just doing my own thing. And I honestly feel that I've always tried to make decisions and think about the other person. And I don't feel --- and other people may disagree with me --- that I've ever screwed anybody.

I'm pretty sure people that worked at the theater didn't like me and left. I'm sorry. It's my business and I created it. And I had a vision. If your vision is different than mine I was willing to listen to you. But, you know, go and start your own movie theater. Do it in Philadelphia, do it in Pittsford, do it in Rochester, if you want to.

City: What would you like your legacy to be?

Coppard: I don't know... "legacy" sounds egotistical.

City: Well, I guess you'd want to know you made a difference.

Coppard: You know, what I really feel --- and this is between you and I, and you can paraphrase it any way you want so I don't look egotistical --- you know when you did something right in your life and you know when you did something wrong in your life. And I think I did something right in your life.

City: I don't think that's egotistical at all. Otherwise why would you continue to do something?

Coppard: I made the personal sacrifices so that we could have something in Rochester that's really, really special.

City: Why?

Coppard: Because I'm an artistic person and a creative person. And, you know, to me --- years ago in the 1970s I wrote a letter to a national real estate magazine which was rejected, and I said that the criteria for entering the real estate business is wrong. It's skewed; it's skewed towards money. Of course that's a major factor if anybody's going to go into any business, but it's not the only criteria.

I think more emphasis should be put on the fact that you're in a profession that can have a great deal of social significance. It can change people's lives. It can change neighborhoods. Real estate brokers can take their expertise into places like the South Wedge, encouraging people to move there, helping them with certain housing programs and finding out how to get rehab money, create a neighborhood environment and essentially change neighborhoods.

But they rejected that letter, said it wasn't of interest to their readers, which really said something to me about the industry. Because that's what it is, it's a money industry.

City: Is that why you chose to scale back on it and become a theater owner?

Coppard: Yeah, because I realized when I was in real estate --- I was an independent and the business was going towards franchising; it was becoming too slick for me. I thought that real estate was a wonderful thing where someone could maintain their own independence, their own style. Franchising wasn't really necessary, but in reality, that's where the industry was going.

But, you know, I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to do something that people thought couldn't be done. And everybody thought that an art theater in Rochester, an independent theater, would be an instant failure. It failed before. And I just knew that I wouldn't fail.

City: Were you a big fan of movies at that time?

Coppard: Yeah, but not a movie geek like you are. I enjoyed movies, sure, but I didn't have time to go to the movies; I worked seven days a week.

City: Where would you have seen movies that would have shown at a theater like the Little? How did you know they were out there?

Coppard: Well, you know, just from a marketing standpoint I read the New York Times and I saw a lot of movies that were showing in New York weren't coming to Rochester. So my pure interest really evolved out of a business decision: Yes, this is a business plan that would work. So you got any more questions? You all done?

City: I would like to say that I think you need a haircut.

Coppard: You always say that.

City: It's true, though.

Coppard: Yeah, I'm probably ready for one.