A musical theater throwback — performed on the Mississippi River in Grand Rapids — is history.
The city has ended Grand Rapids Showboat's lease at a riverfront venue synonymous with the vaudeville show performed there for six decades. Following that September vote, the nonprofit decided to dissolve.
But its board members are still protesting the loss of the venue for what could become a biofuel plant. Showboat Landing is the last stage of its kind to sit atop the Mississippi River, they say, and ought to remain a place to experience the arts beside it.
"It seems like the community wants to have a conversation, an honest conversation about what the best use of the Showboat Landing is," said Benjamin Braff, past president of the nonprofit and a member of the city's Arts and Culture Commission.
The landing, officially called Syndicate Park, for decades has been home to summer performances of Mississippi Melodie Showboat, a show performed on and beside a river paddleboat that promised to "recreate turn-of-the-century entertainment."
But since the 1990s, the city has been eyeing it for industrial development.
In September, the City Council unanimously decided to terminate Showboat's lease. Afterward, in video recap of that meeting, Mayor Dale Adams said that the land has long been zoned for industry. Adams did not respond to calls and e-mails requesting comment.
The city is focusing on improving residents and tourists' access to the river downtown, instead, he said in the video. He pledged to help Showboat find a new venue.
"Just because we've terminated the lease tonight with Showboat doesn't mean we're not concerned and looking for a venue," he said.
City officials have said that UPM Blandin, which owns the giant paper mill in town, has been buying up land near the landing and is interested in building a biofuel plant on the site, bringing more jobs to the city.
UPM Blandin has not made any announcements about such a facility. A spokeswoman for UPM Blandin, Marsha Miller, declined to comment on a possible land swap with the city or the company's plans for the property.
For years, dwindling audiences have threatened the survival of Showboat.
Mention Showboat, and "people jump to the historical, 60-year run of specific types of dresses, jokes, songs," Braff said. "And it was no longer attracting audiences."
Last season, the nonprofit decided to switch up the programming, trading in the same old vaudeville show for two new productions that honored that show's legacy but brought something new, Braff said. The venue also hosted an independent film series and Wine on the Mississippi.
"Maybe we can show the city … that it's not some declining boat show," Braff said, "that this is a vibrant opportunity."
In June, the city sent the nonprofit a preliminary notice that it would be terminating the group's lease during 2015.
"The city has been reserving this piece of property since the 1990s for future industrial development," it said. "At this point, the city is preparing for future development."
The letter pledged to help Showboat find a new venue, suggesting the Forest History Center, less than a mile up the river, as a "great collaboration," perhaps fueled by state bonding dollars. "Showboat has been a wonderful piece of culture in our community," the letter continues, "and the city looks forward to partnering in a new exciting location."
After scouting other sites and weighing its other challenges, the nonprofit's board decided it was best to dissolve.
But it might not be the show's curtain call. Other communities have approached the nonprofit, Braff said, interested to "continue the legacy of a Showboat-style show on the river."