Those interested in the fate of the Passion Play gnawed their fingernails over the weekend as last-minute fundraising efforts continued at full speed to save the ministry and entertainment venue teetering on the brink of closure.
As of early Wednesday morning, efforts by Randall Christy and the South Central Oklahoma Christian Broadcasting radio ministry had raised more than the $75,000 in both cash and pledges necessary to prevent closure of the decades-old Eureka Springs tourist mecca.
However, in hard cash the ministry had hit only about $71,000 by press time early Wednesday afternoon, and they continued working to raise funds ahead of the 3 p.m. deadline.
In a message exclusive to the Lovely County Citizen, Christy said: "If we can raise the another $4,000 in addition to the amount we currently have by this afternoon, that will be just enough to get us over the top."
At a public meeting hosted by the Eureka Chamber of Commerce on Thursday night, Christy, pastor of Union Valley Baptist Church in Ada, Okla., and founder of the Ada-based Gospel Station Network, explained his group's plan to raise $75,000 by the end of the year to pay interest due on the mortgage the GPP owes to Cornerstone Bank, with the eventual goal of buying the Passion Play outright. That deadline was pushed forward to Wednesday because the bank was closed for New Year's Day.
"We intend to purchase the Passion Play grounds and organization," Christy said to a packed house at the Passion Play's Smith Memorial Chapel Thursday evening. "If we make it past this first hurdle of $75,000 -- and I believe this is very doable -- we will be given an exclusive 12-month option to buy the Passion Play altogether."
Christy said although many details will wait until the first big goal is met, no one who donates to save the play will risk losing their money.
"We will hold all checks and credit card payments, and if we don't make the deadline, we will refund everything," he said. "We are not a questionable organization. I have been pastor of the same church for 28 years, and the Gospel Station Network has been in business since 1992. I believe the Lord has led me to Eureka Springs, and I don't believe God wants the Passion Play closed. God wants it to stay open and improve and reach the future."
South Central Oklahoma Christian Broadcasting Inc. is a non-profit organization 501(c)3. The network operates 21 radio stations in Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, and Tennessee and hopes to expand into Arkansas airspace. Its primary musical format is contemporary country, bluegrass and Southern-style gospel music.
"Improvements can always be made and will be here," Christy said. "I have been a pastor for 28 years. If I don't improve my church every year I go backwards. That's not a criticism of anything in particular. We will be improving everything about the Passion Play. The Lord deserves the best."
Christy said the annual bank note interest on the property is $75,000. There is a second note as well, he said, but payments on it were set up on a monthly payment basis, starting again in June, so as long as the play opens for the next season, it can make those payments as the year progresses. The Smith Foundation, which operates the Passion Play, has given Cornerstone Bank a deed in lieu of foreclosure, and that deed was to transfer to Cornerstone after the deadline Wednesday if the interest payment had not been made.
Christy took questions from the audience, including questions about marketing.
Christy said the new management would go beyond ticket sales and improve revenue for the Passion Play ministry through ongoing fundraising. "Ticket sales are not enough," he said. "We work with a fundraising consultant group, and right now they have donated a week of their services to help get things rolling here."
In addition to whatever else it brings to the Passion Play, the Gospel Station Network will bring wide-ranging advertising through its extensive network of stations, including an additional Internet presence. Fundraising ads started this week.
"We were fortunate enough, in the early days of internet streaming, to be featured prominently through Microsoft's Windows Media Player online," Christy said. "For six years we were the most-listened-to gospel radio station on the Internet. Every PC in the world had Windows Media Player as a default. If someone looked up Gospel music, there we were."
The total bank debt for the Great Passion Play is currently $2.8 million, he said, which Christy believes the organization can raise in a reasonable time frame.
"We have a great opportunity to put the Passion Play on this year, and I think if we can do that this year at low cost, there are very specific things we can do to pull this thing out of the hole," he said.
A former employee asked about future employment opportunities at the Passion Play.
"Right now obviously the play has no employees because there is no money," Christy said. "We have to develop the most bare bones budget we can for the first year and staff with as many volunteers as we can. It's all going to be based on the budget we develop. People who are dedicated to the Passion Play will be the ones considered first."
Those wishing to make tax-deductible donations to help save the Passion Play can go to www.thegospelstation.com to donate online. Donations can also be left with Cornerstone Bank, the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, or at the Passion Play itself, at www.greatpassionplay.org.