The recent report that the Overture Center 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 the arts center'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 operation.
But I won't pile on because Paul may still turn out to be right.
First, some long-neglected recognition. A lot of people played a role in getting Overture to this point. Jerry Frautschi led a group of generous donors who retired the debt. Scott Lockard of U.S. Bank led the way in forgiving about half of the debt. Joe Sensenbrenner, Deirdre Garton, Linda Baldwin (Isthmus' associate publisher), Betty Custer, Mark Bugher and Mark Clear all played important parts in the negotiations that led up to the final deal passed in December 2010.
And my own former chief of staff Janet Piraino took charge of Overture's fundraising operation and did a brilliant job for them, as she had for me.
But it's not over. It will never be over because Overture now needs to repeat that feat every year, and it's not yet clear that the organization can sustain this effort (and increase it for inflation). It's hard to get individuals and corporations to give money for ongoing operating expenses. It's cool to contribute money for new construction. It'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.
This is grossly 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 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 him to shut down a conversation on any topic. He's a reasonable person.
So here's a modest proposal.
First, up 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, so we should make good on our 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. In a very conservative estimate, that could easily produce more than $200,000 a year. Remember that Jerry Frautschi has also pledged the proceeds from rents in his 100 Block of State Street development towards Overture's operating expenses.
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 five years or so. This is fair because 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 has recognized the regional significance of other major institutions like the airport and the zoo and taken them over from the city.
That would still leave a private annual fundraising goal of probably between $1 million and $1.5 million dollars, but that is sustainable.
And there would be another benefit to the broader community. Pressure would be taken off limited private philanthropic support, making more resources available for all kinds of good causes. Every nonprofit 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.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.