After three years of plays, concerts and dance recitals, the city-owned Burnsville Performing Arts Center is starting to hit the right notes financially.

The controversial venue hosted more events in 2011, and the city's contribution to cover its operating deficit was $116,000 less than expected.

The center was never expected to make money, but it lost the least money last year of any year since it opened. The city subsidized operating costs to the tune of $275,711, down from $367,000 in 2010 and $540,000 in its inaugural year of 2009.

"Things are going in a very good direction," said Brian Luther, the center's new executive director. "In the three years of the facility, we continue to improve every year financially."

The Performing Arts Center, an anchor of the Heart of the City redevelopment area near Nicollet Avenue and Burnsville Parkway, has been controversial since its conception, with some residents pointedly opposing the city's decision to build the $20 million facility. It was expected that operating the center would cost about $350,000 annually.

The extra-large city contribution the first year, when the center sat unused many days, didn't help public perceptions. And some residents, notably the late Council Member Charlie Crichton, continued to maintain that the center should be self-sustaining.

But Council Member Dan Gustafson, long a proponent of the arts venue, said the furor has died down as the center has grown more popular and bested financial projections.

"We're right on track," Gustafson said. "I really feel the theater has turned the corner. It's here. It's going to stay here. We're moving into the next phase."

Burnsville Deputy City Manager Tom Hansen said he used to get phone calls from residents complaining about the center once or twice a week.

"In the last year, I've had zero," Hansen said. "I know that's anecdotal, but boy, from my perspective, that's powerful."

The center has a 1,000-seat main theater, a 150-seat "black box" theater, an art gallery and rooms for conferences, classes and events.

In addition to operating costs, the city paid $742,790 toward the bonds it used to build the center and cover other capital costs. The city pays those expenses from a variety of funds, including about $240,000 from landfill host fees and $35,000 from private donations.

Director is praised

Members of the Burnsville Performing Arts Commission praised Luther, the center's third executive director in three years who arrived in October, for bringing better customer service and more community enthusiasm to the post.

"I want to thank you for the great job you did," commission member Mark Pevan told Luther after a presentation about the 2011 financial report. "In three months, it's been outstanding."

The improved financials come even though the center lost about $70,000 in income from Envision Academy, an arts magnet school at the center that closed because of low enrollment.

Luther said the school's closure was likely responsible for the venue's drop in total attendance from about 95,700 in 2010 to about 87,000 in 2011.

But the PAC's ability to recoup that revenue speaks to an increase in programming, he said, partly because the venue is finding its sweet spots, particularly as a venue for dance recitals and competitions, and because of a new "angel fund." That fund allows Luther to purchase shows to put on rather than always waiting for outside producers to bring their pitches forward.

Three private donors each contributed $10,000 to that fund, and the city's economic development authority also pitched in $30,000. With money earned from those shows, the angel fund had about $67,000 going into this year.

December was the busiest month of the year at the center, drawing 12,400 people to 84 events, including sold-out shows by Lorie Line, Louie Anderson, the Twin Cities Ballet and the BoDeans. For those performances, about half the audience came from south of the river.

"We were positioned to finish very strongly and we did," Luther said.

And there are more adjustments to come.

This month, the center quit contracting for housekeeping and custodial work; Luther estimates that doing that work in-house will save an additional $15,000 to $20,000 a year. He also plans to reach out to more people planning non-performance events, such as conferences and wedding receptions.

And the city is pulling together marketing plans in hopes of luring a private company to buy naming rights to the arts center as a whole or individual spaces within.

"This gets us to an area where we are comfortable," Luther said. "We can build on that success going forward."

Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286