Great Passion Play closes for good; bank confirms foreclosure is under way

Monday, December 3, 2012
The Christ of the Ozarks' 24-hour lights have been shut off.

EUREKA SPRINGS -- President and CEO of Cornerstone Bank Charles T. Cross confirmed on Monday that Eureka Springs' Great Passion Play will be turning everything over to the bank in the next few days in what he described as an "amicable foreclosure," and the play is now closed for good.

"It is true that they are winding stuff down and will not be doing a 2013 season," Cross said. "We have been good, healthy partners with the Passion Play for quite some time. So while it's true they are in the process of conveying their assets, and the bank will be taking over in the next few weeks, it certainly isn't a foreclosure in the sense of our going in and taking over. They have reached the end of the road and are turning everything over to us."

A major tourist draw when it opened in July 1968, the play, which has a cast of more than 150 local residents, experienced a marked drop in attendance during the past four years, leading to an appeal two months ago for donations to keep it going.

One employee told the Lovely County Citizen that the largest attendance the GPP enjoyed in 2012 was about 1,000 people in one night over War Eagle Fair weekend; a few years ago, explained Ezra Hodgson, who worked sound for the play, attendance of 3,000 was routine, nearly filling up the venue's 4,000 seats.

Regardless, the play's recent appeal for help apparently was not successful, or not enough anyway.

Although neither officials with Cornerstone nor the Great Passion Play would confirm the amount of debt GPP carries with Cornerstone, several sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told LCC that the GPP owes approximately $1.2 million on which it cannot afford the mortgage payments.

In addition, according to the Carroll County Tax Assessors' office, the GPP currently owes $35,634.34 in back taxes and penalties on its property that includes nine parcels of land, as of Dec. 3.

Cross declined to discuss GPP's exact debt load with his bank, but he said the bank is "comfortable" with the play's amount of debt, and the bank is hopeful they will either find someone to buy the property and reinvest in it, eventually re-opening the play, or find a buyer for the property who will create something new altogether that would also serve as a tourist draw for the area.

"Our goal at the bank is hopefully to find someone who can inject capital into it and continue to perpetuate the business in a way that would be helpful to the town," Cross said. "We're hoping we can find someone to sell it to who can enhance it and do those things to keep people employed and keep drawing visitors to Eureka Springs."

If a buyer is not found, GPP's property and assets will be sold piece-meal to recoup the bank's investment.

Some assets already have been sold, apparently -- such as the animals. Numerous sources told LCC that the play had begun selling its stock of live animals used in the play as early as a week ago because it could no longer afford to feed them.

One vendor associated with the GPP, Randy Langhover of Randy's Brochures and Cosmic Cavern, who delivered the Great Passion Play's brochures for years, said on Monday that the play had cancelled its most recent order "because they said they wouldn't be there," he said. "They've sold off the animals, turned all the power off and locked the gate."

He added those who had given or lent artwork to the art display spaces on the grounds had been notified and had been coming by to pick up their work. "I donated their last brochure delivery, which was $300, to try and help out," Langhover said, adding that he hopes the new owners will allow visitors access to the grounds to see the statue.

Thrown into darkness

The statue he is referring to is the Christ of the Ozarks, which was recently plunged into darkness on its 167-acre home atop Magnetic Mountain for the first time in many years.

Dedicated in 1966, Christ of the Ozarks is the second-largest Christ statue in the world and one of the most-visited attractions in the Ozarks. Standing 65.5 feet tall, it was the first project built on the GPP grounds by the Elna Smith Foundation, which has operated the Great Passion Play.

It's been lighted at night for years, with the GPP grounds remaining open for visitors so they could see the statue, since it was founder Gerald Smith's dream that the statue be accessible and visible 24 hours a day.

No more. The lights were shut off a few weeks ago, and at that time, GPP officials told LCC it was a cost-saving measure. Turns out, it was more like a final measure.

But it may not turn out to be final, after all. Supporters of the play remain convinced that someone, somewhere, will be interested in buying the GPP and re-opening the play.

Cornerstone Bank Board of Directors Chairman John F. Cross said he had been an advocate of the play throughout its existence and has been in touch over the months with other entities that might be interested in taking it over.

"I have been on the Board of Regents of Liberty University since 1990 and have been in touch with Jerry Falwell Jr.'s people," he said. "Also John Hagee of John Hagee Ministries and Cecil Todd of Revival Fires Ministry."

Cross defended the GPP as not only a huge financial asset to Eureka Springs but a spiritual one as well.

"There's no way to quantify how many people have been saved through attending the play, and you can quote me on that," he said.

Cross added that he has advocated finding a package buyer for both the Great Passion Play and the Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway, which lies at the base of Magnetic Mountain and is likewise for sale.

"It is just downhill from the play and connections could be easily made for visitors to be bussed up the hill to attend," he said. "It would open up a lot of parking and allow many more visitors to easily access the play."

Neighbors of the Great Passion Play lamented the news.

"We want the spirit of Jesus to be present over our city," said Philip Wilson, pastor of First Christian Church on Passion Play Road. "Anything that enhances that is good. Anything that lessens that is unfortunate."

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  • well, the banks win again after so many years, even jesus is in debt. I wonder who would have enough money to spend on an endeavor like that... Oh, I know! THE BANK.

    -- Posted by kegan76 on Tue, Dec 4, 2012, at 12:39 AM
  • I don't see it as a bank winning thing. I see it as poor leadership on the part of the board of directors. Who are the real losers? Every large hotel and restaurant in Eureka. That covers the money part of the loss, but the real loser will the person who needed the see and hear the story of how God made a way for sinful man to gain redemption. Christ is the only answer. I suspect things will keep on in Eureka. The bikers will come and party, the GLBT weekends will flourish, and the PD and FD will keep busy cleaning up the mess. But this, only for a season. So all you who don't believe, run over to Flint St food bank, Wildflowers Church, ECHO clinic, St. Vincent and others. They will eventually dry up too. There are two kinds of people in this world. The givers and the takers....what category do you fall into?

    -- Posted by rockpilefarmer on Tue, Dec 4, 2012, at 7:50 AM
  • I pray a buyer can be found who will continue the Great Passion Play. My daughter and oldest granddaughter used to live in Eureka Springs. My granddaughter, as a teenager, performed in the play and my daughter, a registered nurse, frequently served as the nurse on site on nights my granddaughter performed.

    The performances were wonderful, very well done, and it would be a shame for them to be discontinued.

    -- Posted by gram11 on Tue, Dec 4, 2012, at 8:14 AM
  • Givers and takers? Someone has to "make it" before its given, or elected away from them.

    Anyway, Santa won in November,so all will be good!!! MMMM, sweet Karma, sweet Karma.

    -- Posted by Atlas Shrugged on Tue, Dec 4, 2012, at 6:34 PM
  • Wish Willie Nelson could come in and turn it into "Willie World". The statue could be adorned to look exactly like him. A music museum, music hall of fame, and live concerts could take place.

    -- Posted by Arkansan1 on Wed, Dec 5, 2012, at 12:22 AM
  • the bottom line seems to be that Eureka Springs still hasn't replaced the blue hair belt buckle crowd that used to flood into town by the hundreds on those tour busses.

    I just don't see Eureka Springs being able to attract that kind of volume any more...

    -- Posted by kegan76 on Wed, Dec 5, 2012, at 3:31 PM
  • Mr. Rockpile takes his usual negative stand against anything he doesn't like, including groups that do much good in the community. Without providing statistics to back up his position, he alleges that the PD and FD have to "clean up the mess" after the GLBT weekends. I cannot speak of the bikers, but I know the GLBT weekends. I don't recall anything beyond the usual weekend public safety incidents.

    I personally don't object to the presence of the Great Passion Play. People come voluntarily to that venue, so if my faith goes in a different direction, all I have to do is stay away. However, I worry about some of the organizations suggested as possible owners. I don't want Jerry Falwell et al in our community. I'm certain that such political/religious organizations would be prone to meddling in local matters not directly pertaining to the operation of their business.

    -- Posted by firediva4411 on Thu, Dec 6, 2012, at 11:37 AM
  • Jerry Falwell is dead but if a group like that became part of the community why would their concerns be any MORE meddling then Other peoples concerns??

    -- Posted by HopeandHealing on Fri, Dec 7, 2012, at 9:06 AM
  • This is a bit sad for me on a few levels. Firstly I find it a bit disheartening that what many have seen as a symbol of Christ is now closed to the public; though the lack of interest in supporting such a ministry speaks of a greater concern. As a child my family spent much time working and volunteering on the grounds so there is a nastolgic part of me that hates to see this as well.

    The commercial side of this will obviously have some effect on Eurekans. Whether they have until now found employment there or have benefitted from the GPP's tourism via their own businesses, there's no denying that citizens of Eureka Springs have all been affected by its presence. Though some residents who do not share in the faith may be relieved that Jesus is longer standing illuminated over their homes at night, they will have to face at least a slight fall in revenue. While the believers will have to face the resounding echo of the parellel now drawn between the fading of an icon of their Savior and the fading spiritual state of the world around them.

    But let's not be discouraged. There are still nearly 20 bodies of believers in the area meeting regularly to encourage one another in Christ, and to worship the Lord with their lives. Neither let us be naive to think that Jesus is a popular topic, that His gospel needn't be preached in the streets, and that His love needn't be shown to our neighbors through grace, prayer and servitude, whether it is appreciated or not.

    Maybe this should serve as a reminder to us that our communities need Christ, and an opportunity to live out the faith we claim. Eureka is a brilliant junction of people's from all walks of life, but it's plain to see, even from the outside that Jesus has a heart for this beautiful town, and His Holy Spirit is alive and well and at work here.

    "He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage" - 2 Corinthians 5

    -- Posted by Eurekan Abroad on Fri, Dec 7, 2012, at 9:54 AM
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