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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Committee grapples with tricky issues on Overture Center
Final recommendations expected October 8
Committee members want a board that reflects diverse interests in the city.
Committee members want a board that reflects diverse interests in the city.
Credit:Overture Center

The committee looking at whether Madison should take over the Overture Center for $1 is recommending adding conditions to the acquisition, to address concerns that have been raised by labor representatives, Common Council members and others.

Built with a $205 million gift from Jerry Frautschi, Overture now has more than $28 million in debt. Earlier this year, Overture's two boards -- the Madison Cultural Arts District Board and 201 State Foundation (Linda Baldwin, Isthmus' associate publisher, serves on both) -- came up with a plan to solve the debt crisis. A group of six donors, led by Frautschi, would contribute $15 million, and the banks would forgive the rest of the debt. But the plan depends on the city taking ownership of the building and allowing a nonprofit to manage it. And the deal must be done by the end of the year.

Some members of the committee have bristled at the condition of city ownership, fearing the city is getting stuck with a gigantic money pit. And they also have serious doubts about the financial model developed by AMS Planning & Research Group, a consultant based in Connecticut. Its predictions of a rosy financial future struck some as wishful thinking.

Some committee members said they wanted more of the consultant's data, to analyze its assumptions, which include dramatic increases in Broadway show revenue. Former mayor Paul Soglin, a committee member, said, "The AMS report and the supporting documents, in my mind, are seriously flawed. I'm told that everybody around the country is doing forecasting on Broadway that is the exact opposite of ours." Added committee member Warren E. Onken, "I would have liked to have seen spreadsheets."

Looking to address some of these concerns, the committee is recommending the city hire an independent consultant to verify the AMS model. It also supports developing financial and artistic standards the new nonprofit managing group would have to meet. And if it fails to do so, the city could sever the agreement and bid for a new operator.

At the committee meeting Wednesday night, Brian Butler, a member of Overture's two boards, defended the boards' plan for solving Overture's problems, particularly from the charge that the boards represent arts patrons more than a populist perspective. "What responsibility do you have to reinvent the wheel? You asked us to do a job. We did this for you, for the city. We did a good job.

"It would be a mistake to reject this because you think we're an arty coalition of folks," Butler added. "Is it a take-it-or-leave-it proposition? I think it really is. That's what circumstances forced upon us."

Conflicting points of view were apparent when the committee discussed the makeup of the board that would manage the nonprofit. Several committee members want a board that reflects diverse interests in the city.

But Deirdre Wilson Garton, a committee member who sits on Overture's two current boards, said the nonprofit board needs to have strong representation from wealthy donors. "One of the most important goals of the board is going to be fundraising," she said. "People on the board need to have an ability to raise substantial amounts of money."

That bothered some, who said Overture's problem all along is that it hasn't gotten broad community support. "I am amazed to hear you think the board should only be made up by fundraisers," said Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff. "You need to engage the community or you're going to fail."

Bidar-Sielaff added that many of Overture's resident arts companies have cited their outreach to minority and poor communities as a reason for Overture's importance. "Those communities need representation so they can say what they need, rather than being told what they need."

In the end, the committee recommended the board have a vague diversity representing community members, arts groups and fundraisers.

On perhaps the stickiest issue facing the city -- who should Overture's employees work for -- the committee was torn. The hourly employees are now all technically city employees, giving them civil service protections. Overture representatives have stressed that they need to have the flexibility of a private business, able to cut wages or positions more easily when people aren't performing or when the economy is tough.

Committee chairman Mark D. Bugher admitted the committee might have to "punt" this issue to the Common Council. The committee is due to meet (PDF) again Friday, Oct. 8, at 3 p.m. in Room 201 of the City-County Building, when it hopes to make its final recommendations. Common Council is expected to take up the issue in November.

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