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Secret Donor Gives Arena $50K Gift

Woodstock — Dan French, Woodstock Union Arena’s general manager, was working on a grant application for the arena last Friday afternooon when he received a piece of mail that changed the course of his weekend — and the arena’s future — for the better.

Inside the envelope was a $50,000 check from an anonymous donor, with a note to use the money “wherever it’s needed most” — the largest unrestricted gift the arena has ever received.

“I just stared at it a while, trying to digest it and make sure it was real,” French said. “I don’t know if I’d ever seen a $50,000 check before.”

Ginny Eames, president of the arena board, said that the news gave her goosebumps.

“This is the best thing that could have happened to us right now,” she said. “It shows community support and gives us the boost we need.”

The donation could not have come at a better time. The arena has been struggling to pay down debt that has led it to operate in the red since it opened its doors in 2003.

This summer, the debt became such a problem that at a meeting last month the arena board requested that the school board release $125,000 of the arena’s $450,000 endowment to help pay operating expenses and reduce the debt.

At that meeting, attended by more than 100 community members, Eames described the arena’s financial situation as “dire.” The board denied the request as proposed but assigned a subcommittee to negotiate a compromise with the arena board.

Last Wednesday night, the school board held an emergency meeting and approved a $25,000 interest-free, two year loan to the arena. The board agreed that if the arena can raise $75,000 before the end of next August, the loan will be forgiven and an additional $15,000 will be released from the endowment.

During the last fiscal year, the arena fundraised $41,000 in annual appeals, according to a budget distributed to the school board during the August meeting. The year before, it raised $40,300; so it seemed unlikely that the arena would be able to raise the $75,000 needed to forgive the $25,000 loan. But the recent $50,000 donation brought the arena two-thirds of the way toward that goal, with a year remaining to fundraise.

“This gift matches a whole year’s worth of fundraising work,” French said, adding that the arena won’t stop at the $75,000 required to forgive the loan.

Dwight Doton, chairman of the school board and liaison between the school and arena boards, is optimistic this gift will spark confidence in the arena — and, he hopes, donations as well.

The gift will be used first to pay off personal loans made over the last two years from friends of the arena, and then go toward other overdue accounts payable, such as vendors, utilities and suppliers.

“After years of paying backward, now we can finally start to look forward,” French said. “This is really exciting.

“I don’t know if it was an old friend or a new friend of the arena,” French said. “My hope is we can honor this gift by matching it by the end of the calendar year, and show this individual or family that their generous contribution really did make a huge difference.”