Guest Column: Raising the curtain–part two

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part series. Part one appeared in the March 17-23, 2010, issue.

By Bruce Hammond
Co-owner, Sound Concepts

Mike Dunn’s Venues Committee report recommends the MetroCentre Authority be renamed and given expanded powers and responsibilities. This is the same governing board that has overseen a financial meltdown over the last eight years. This board will be appointed by the same politicians as always, with the exception that two members of the CPAC (Coronado Performing Arts Center) Board are to be included. At least this means two of the nine board members will come to the table with their conflicts of interest out in the open.

Initially, the two main tasks of this “new” entity are to hire a CEO or private managerial firm whose job description would basically be “messiah” and to severely cut all Community Redevelopment spending everywhere but the MetroCentre. What kind of “accountability” message are we sending when the entity most guilty of profligate spending is the one whose funds don’t get axed? Of course, finding anyone listed in this report who is truly qualified to hire said CEO is the real “job one.” But once everybody is on board with the plan and operational subsidies have been cut to $1 million (where does this figure come from, and does it include the new CEO’s salary?), we will be free to begin rebuilding downtown.

Think I’m kidding? In Appendix C of the Raising the Curtain Document, the 2007 MetroCentre subsidy is increased 10 percent by 2012, Coronado subsidies are cut 67 percent between 2007 and 2014, On the Waterfront subsidies (these are in-kind only, and cover services that are often mandated by the city) are cut by 100 percent this year. The OTW cuts have already happened. This last one makes the threat issued by a Rockford Register Star editorial March 10 a little tough to comprehend. I quote, “If OTW chooses not to be a part of the authority structure, public funding for its annual Labor Day event will be far harder to come by.” Does the RRS really think the city might give the festival less than zero financial assistance?

There are some good ideas in the Report, although some, like the formation of a MetroCentre Foundation, are probably a day late and $20 million short. An effort to consolidate functions is admirable, but when the players have no real basis for trusting each other’s motives or efficacy, positive results are likely to be a matter of dumb luck. There will have to be carrots and sticks to get the results we seek.

So, you may ask, am I just going to go on bitching, or do I have something constructive to add to the discussion? Yes, I do have a few suggestions that the Venues Committee might have considered and that the city should consider as well.

→ The first order of business would be to adopt a new method for appointing the members of the Metro Board. It doesn’t matter how honest, talented or well-intentioned the parties involved are, any politician will be loathe to embarrass a friend or political ally that they have appointed to the board. A bipartisan selection committee composed of aldermen, county board members and citizens-at-large should screen applicants for board positions, preferably well before they become open. Current board members should be asked to step down as soon as their term expires (earlier would be better), but they would certainly be welcome to submit their names to the screening committee.

→ In addition, Metro would be required to reduce their operating subsidy to 2007 levels within two years and produce a balanced budget for 2011. This should not require that draconian cuts be made. The percentage is small when compared to what has already been asked of the RCVB, CPAC and OTW.

→ Before any more responsibility or authority is given to the Metro Board and management, they must regain some of the arts community’s trust and goodwill that has been squandered over the last eight years. This will probably have to work itself out over time, with the various participants employing the “tit-for-tat” strategy of game theory until a stable level of cooperation can be reached. People won’t start trusting those who have repeatedly “burned” them just because government says they should.

→ Rather than asking all of these groups to pay RACVB for their marketing expertise to sell Rockford to Rockfordians, why not make adjustments in the way RACVB is funded? In the past, the agency’s funds have come primarily from the hotel/motel tax. Ergo the priority has been to put “heads in beds.” If additional funding comes their way by putting more “butts in seats,” their level of involvement with downtown venues should increase dramatically.

→ The operation of Davis Park must be entrusted to some entity other than the MetroCentre. The arena obviously has no interest in doing anything with Davis Park and would seem to already have too much on their plate. On the Waterfront is an obvious candidate to run the park and expand its use. Some issues have to be addressed before OTW or anyone else can take over the park.

1. There will have to be some operational subsidy money, at least in the beginning.

2. There will have to be a substantial time commitment from all concerned. The situation in Davis is not going to get fixed on a one-year-at-a-time basis. The first contract will have to be for at least five years, preferably longer.

3. The city will have to make some financial commitment toward improving the park’s infrastructure. Right now, it’s a place to walk your dog with a big, empty building with an expensive paint job in the middle. It needs to be made user-friendly. Rockford would at least have to provide funds to match those raised for “bricks and mortar” projects by the group running the park.

4. When prioritizing infrastructure improvements, the entity running the park should cast the deciding vote.

5. It is important that more safe and convenient parking is available close to the park.

6. Finally, it is essential that all parties are agreed on the Davis site for a festival park. This includes limiting the uses of the Amerock and Tapco spaces to those compatible with a festival park. Contrary to what some of our leaders would have us believe, this rules out most commercial uses for the property.

→ Leaving Davis Park and returning to the larger issues, the city should immediately set up and begin raising endowment funds at the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois that would provide grants to arts groups who want to use downtown venues run by local not-for-profits only! An example would be if District 205 were ever in a position to do another all-city theater project, they could apply for a grant to defray their expenses at the Coronado. The eligible venues and groups would have to be determined by the board that issues the grants, but a starter list of venues could include the Coronado, MetroCentre, Davis Park, Sullivan Theatre, Rockford Theatre, Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center and Memorial Hall. An eventual principal target amount of $2-$3 million of public and private funds would ensure that earnings-only grants would help subsidize many of these groups without additional tax dollars being spent.

→ The city should begin putting together a public/private deal to build a decent hotel downtown. The model would be something on the order of the Beloit Inn. We can worry about coming up with $55 million for a small convention center and hotel later. Right now, we need someplace close to service Coronado, Metro and OTW performers and techs. I’m sure some of the big law firms would find it convenient as well.

→ The City of Rockford, Rockford Park District and Main Street museum complex should form an exploratory panel to find a use for the Armory. A live-music venue is out of the question, but other uses exist for the space more in keeping with the museum theme. My personal choice would be to team up with a regional university to create a Great Lakes Basin Fisheries Aquarium.

→ Adopt a plan for downtown and commit to it! It seems like we’ve paid for dozens of these things and either don’t use them or use bits and pieces that don’t mesh. The recent interplay between the MetroCentre rehab, mall removal and Church and Chestnut lane closures mentioned earlier is a case in point. My suggestion is to put all of those plans online and let everybody pick and choose and shift things around Wikipedia fashion until we come up with something that people seem happy with (I think we will be surprised by the quality of the final result). Once we have a plan, adopt it officially, prioritize the various elements and get started. Do not hire another consultant. By now, it should be obvious to everyone that the main talent possessed by outfits like C.H. Johnson is the ability to read the client and justify whatever they think they want. Oh, and by the way, table all the talk about eliminating one-way streets until we have an overall plan for downtown.

There are a lot of other pieces in the downtown puzzle and a lot of details to be worked out in the preceding nine points for them to have a chance of success. I’m not currently comfortable with a plan that gives any downtown venue authority over the others. If the city can’t come up with incentives to get all the players to start working with each other and playing nice, then eventually, it will be necessary to form a new, independent governing board to ride herd over the lot.

The City of Rockford also needs to seriously reconsider the harsh special events policies it is putting in place, or it won’t be long before there aren’t any events, special or otherwise, inside the city limits.

Finally, I am submitting this “rant” to both the Rockford Register Star and The Rock River Times in hopes that at least one of them will take the time to investigate my claims or garner some feedback on the suggestions. Sadly, the local print and electronic media’s failure to hold the city and the MetroCentre’s feet to the fire has helped get us to this point.

Thanks for reading.

From the March 24-30, 2010 issue

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