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