Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Gift That Keeps On Taking

A limited amount of ado is being made of the financial woes at Madison's Overture Center, or, as I called it in my editorial-writing days, "The Great People's Palace Of The Arts". The Center has been in financial trouble pretty much since the day it was built. Last night, the city's Board of Estimate(s) made it clear, without a vote, that they don't want the city to poke this hornet's nest with a stick, ten feet long or otherwise. The committee members are pretty much in synch with Mayor Cieslewicz, who wants no part of another refinancing plan that puts taxpayers on the hook.
The Center is a gift from a local businessman, Jerry Frautschi, who opened his wallet to the tune of more than 200 million bucks to get it built about 8 years ago. The usual hyperbole was associated with the project, from the initial announcement during the reign of Mayor Sue Baumann, to the hiring of the famous architect Cesar Pelli, to the day it finally opened. It was to be a great engine to drive the arts scene and downtown night-life of the central city.
Not so much, as it turned out. Ten times the newspaper ink (and broadcast electrons) have been devoted in the past several years to the problems the downtown gentry (a/k/a "condonistas") have with the drunken young folks who raise hell downtown at bar time, as have been devoted to the big arts engine. A couple years ago, when the financial woes of the Overture Center became evident, and there was a mandated re-financing round, the arts mavens again chose to put the bulk of the remaining Frautschi money into the stock market...hoping the returns would not only pay off the construction debt of the building, but also would be bountiful enough to fund the singers, dancers, and artists.
That's a huge part of the issue. The arts crowd that held the purse strings thought they could double-down on Frautschi's money...and, rather than pay off the construction debt, they decided to use some of the money to set up a financing package to retire the construction debt (how'd THAT turn out?) and the rest to incubate arts. (This is a huge simplification of the actual setup, but unless you want to talk about mezannine financing, tiered debt, PILOT's, and other arcane financial stuff, it'll suffice.) The national financial meltdown did the same thing to the Overture's financial structure as it did to our 401-K's.
There are those who say a big part of the solution is to bring in more stuff that "regular" folks will go to. I'm one of those folks. The only time I've been to Overture was for a Lewis Black show, a year ago. He was hilarious and it was a great night. The facilty was superb. I was impressed. But the larger issue now, is keeping it afloat...so if they decide more "regular folks" stuff should be booked, the Center will be there to open its doors to them. Largely, it's up to the smartest financial and management folks in Madison to figure out a way to get past this very large bump in the road. You can argue that the Center was built before there was a large support base of arts mavens created to push for construction, the way it is in most other communities that have a facility like the Overture Center, but that's the past, and Overture is forced to live in the now.
Until the money problem is resolved, and a clear plan for generating more attendance is implemented, one of the greatest civic gifts in history will continue to be the gift that keeps on taking.

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