Increased attendance and a growing variety of events helped the city-owned Burnsville Performing Arts Center continue to improve its financial performance last year, a sign the facility may be moving beyond its shaky start in 2009.

The Performing Arts Center, a key element of Burnsville's Heart of the City redevelopment project, trimmed its operating deficit in 2012 to $253,466, down from $275,688 in 2011 and about $112,000 better than expected.

The center, whose facilities include two theaters, an art gallery and rooms for special events, was not set up to make money, but the deficit has continued to shrink since the first year, when it topped $500,000.

"We're all very proud that we're seeing that continue to drop going forward," executive director Brian Luther recently told the Burnsville Performing Arts Center Advisory Commission.

In an interview, Luther said the center's rough start was due in part to its opening at the recession's low point, something that could not have been foreseen by the city.

"That was a very tough time for many venues across the country. People everywhere were very cautious with discretionary expenditures," said Luther, who works for VenuWorks, the Iowa-based company hired by the city to operate the Burnsville facility.

More established performing arts centers in the Twin Cities said they also felt the pinch from the recession.

The Hopkins Center for the Arts, whose anchor tenant is the Stages Theatre Company, has bounced back after seeing its attendance drop to a low point in its 2008-2009 season, according to Susan Hanna-Bibus, director of programming and marketing. "Things are getting back on track," she said, noting that donations to the center have also started to increase again.

Attendance at the Lakeville Area Arts Center didn't fall, but it grew at a slower pace during the economic downturn, said coordinator Tom Barnard.

The Burnsville center's revenue in 2012 rose 13 percent to $975,388 even as the center absorbed the last portion of financial impact from the loss of Envision Academy, an arts magnet school that closed in the middle of 2011. Luther noted that the center more than offset the loss of Envision, increasing overall attendance by 27 percent to about 110,000.

Luther declined to make a guess about 2013 attendance, but he said he expects it to continue to rise. City budget documents project that revenue will break $1 million this year.

The center got a modest boost late last year by picking up two performances that had been booked by Orchestra Hall but were canceled due to the labor dispute that has resulted in the Minnesota Orchestra musicians' lockout. "They were the type of opportunities that sometimes kind of drop in your lap," Luther said of the shows by Minnesota Youth Symphonies and Tonic Sol-Fa. The a cappella quartet is from the Twin Cities but tours nationally and "was looking for a place for a hometown holiday show," Luther said.

In addition to dance competitions and performances by local groups such as the Dakota Valley Symphony and the Chameleon Theatre Circle, the Burnsville center continued to add more nationally known acts. The Oak Ridge Boys, the U.S. Navy Band and comedian Louie Anderson were among those who played to sold-out houses last year. Pianist Lori Line had strong ticket sales for two shows in December and is considering adding a third holiday show this year, Luther said. Tracy Morgan, an alumnus of "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," will bring his stand-up comedy act to the center in March.

Luther said that as a result of the sold-out Oak Ridge Boys show, the center was able to land another well-known country musician, Clint Black, for a show this April. "We're being recognized [by agents and promoters] as a facility that can sell tickets," Luther said.

Nationally known performers were the principal reason more people traveled farther to events at the center last year. About 43 percent of those coming to the center last year were from outside the south metro area, up from 40 percent in 2011. More than 50 percent of the ticket buyers for the Tonic Sol-Fa and Louie Anderson shows were not from the south metro.

But Luther emphasized that local performing groups are the center's bread and butter. "They are instrumental in terms of our fulfilling our mission," he said. The Dakota Valley Symphony had a sold-out performance for a concert last February, and the Twin Cities Ballet drew large audiences for its annual production of "The Nutcracker."

Plans for 2013 include trying to generate more revenue from special events, including weddings. "This is definitely an area of growth for us," Luther said. The center had four bookings for wedding parties last year and already has nine booked for 2013.

The center also is working on naming rights for the facility as a whole as well as parts of it, such as the theaters or meeting rooms, Luther said. Luther said the center staff this year will work to identify potential corporate and individual sponsors.

Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282