The recent report that Overture has met its $2.3 million private fundraising goal for this year is cause for celebration, but it's not time for chest pounding.
Mayor Paul Soglin said famously soon after taking office that he expected Overture's new private management and fundraising structure to "crash and burn." You might expect me to be among those rubbing it in now that Overture has been so successful in its first full year of independent operation.
But I won't rub it in, because Paul may still turn out to be right.
First, some long-neglected recognition. The other day, Paul Fanlund wrote a good piece about this for his "360" column in the Cap Times. He appropriately recognized Jerry Frautschi, Mark Clear, Dierdre Garton and Joe Sensenbrenner for their roles in getting this done.
But what didn't get mentioned in Paul's column, for space reasons, is that Overture (specifically good folks like Garton and Linda Baldwin, associate publisher at Isthmus) took a chance on hiring my former chief of staff Janet Piraino to run its dramatically expanded development operation. Janet was well familiar with Overture and its supporters since she navigated that issue on my behalf, but she had virtually no direct fundraising experience.
Yet, she pulled off a tripling of Overture's previous fundraising record in one year. It just proves my belief that smart, energetic people who know how to work with others can be successful regardless of their specific background or training. Janet will be good at anything she does.
But here's the problem. It's not clear that Overture can sustain this effort (and increase it for inflation) year after year. It's hard to get individuals and corporations to give money for ongoing operating expenses. It's cool to give money for new construction, but there's not so much of a rush to help pay the utility bills.
But for this year anyway, the city of Madison stepped up, as did the business community and Overture's patrons. The one glaring exception is Dane County. Over half of those who attend events at Overture live outside of the city, but most of them live elsewhere in the county.
So, if you live in Middleton, Waunakee, Maple Bluff, Shorewood Hills, or Westport, for example, you get to enjoy Overture without paying a dime in taxes to support it, while your Madison neighbors foot 100% of the public support for that venue.
This is ridiculously unfair, yet I could never get the county to so much as entertain a discussion of paying anything toward what I considered to be its moral obligation to support a facility of regional importance.
But we have a new county administration in place under Joe Parisi, and I've never known Joe to shut down a conversation on any topic. He's a reasonable person.
So, here's a proposal.
First, increase the city of Madison's contribution to the agreed upon amount of $2 million a year. I know that this year the contribution was $1.85 million, but it's $2 million that we promised when we accepted the private money to pay off the Overture debt, and so the city should make good on its promise.
Second, start charging something reasonable for parking. You pay $15 to park at a UW football game, but $5 to park at a city of Madison ramp for an Overture event. Get that up to $15, and you'd produce another substantial pot of revenue. Let the city Parking Utility continue to keep $5 of that and give the other $10 to Overture. That might produce around $200,000 a year, in a conservative estimate.
Third, gradually move the public subsidy from the city to the county, and increase it to, say, $2.5 million adjusted for inflation. You could do this over a period of, say, five years. This is fair because, remember, city of Madison residents pay county property taxes too. So, it's not as if we're shifting the costs from city residents to those outside of the city. Rather, costs would now be shared in an equitable way for a facility that is enjoyed by the entire region.
This isn't a new thing. In the past the county recognized the regional significance of other major institutions like the airport and the zoo, and has taken them over from the city.
That would still leave a private annual fundraising goal of probably between one and two million dollars, but that is sustainable.
There would be another benefit to the broader community. Pressure would be taken off of limited private philanthropic support, making more resources available for all kinds of good causes. Every non-profit in Dane County should support this idea.
I don't want Paul Soglin to be right about this, and I think it's a safe bet that he doesn't want to be right about it either. With the county taking on its share of the responsibility for an institution that benefits the entire region, we can make sure that Overture doesn't crash and burn, but prospers into the future.