Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Overture to the University?

It's official.  The Overture Center is for sale. . . for a buck.  The Overture Development Corporation can't handle the center's remaining $28 million debt and wants to give the center away in exchange for financial security.  Unfortunately, the intended recipient, the City of Madison, isn't very keen on handling the debt.  The offer to sell doesn't appear to be exclusive, however, and other potential buyers are bound to come up.  Apart from some yet-to-be-formed rescue entity, the obvious alternative would be the UW - Madison.  It's unlikely, but interesting.

There's certainly precedent.  The UW - Green Bay has owned the Weidner Center for over 15 years.  While the UW - Madison was tossing together the Humanities Building, forty years ago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built the Krannert Center, a performing arts center almost the size of Overture in a metropolitan area that's still less than half the size of Madison.  But these were centers built by universities on their own initiative.  There are plenty of reasons a university purchase of Overture might not work.

The UW - Madison's operating budget is ten times the size of the city's but that doesn't mean it's any better able to absorb that much new debt.  Even if the UW System weren't in line for another round of budget cuts, it's doubtful the legislature would acquiesce to the Madison campus putting $28 million on the state tab. 

The debt would have to be retired with private funds and, though the university's donor pool is larger than the city's, it isn't untapped.  The UW is already working on overhauling its own arts facilities.  Replacement is still the most practical option for the crumbling Mosse Humanities Building and Overture's part-time concert hall couldn't come close to absorbing the School of Music's 300-plus annual performances.  Yet the fund for a new concert structure stands at $20 million and, with $18 million to go, the music school doesn't need the competition.  This goes for the Art Department's new building project as well.

Add to that the necessary operating subsidy for a center of Overture's size when the university's existing arts programs are already underfunded and there's a substantial, probably insurmountable financial hurdle. 

Still, the possibilities are intriguing.  Plans for the new concert halls are modest and there are no plans at all to address the shortcomings of the theatres in Vilas Hall.  For $28 million (and one)  the University could secure occasional use of much larger venues than it would build for its own programs.  Ownership of a massive world-class facility could also go a long way toward raising the profile of the University's arts programs at a time when they need to reach out to the community.

The ODC's timeframe is cramped.  They want an answer by the first quarter of this year.  In the short term, the corporation is burning through 200 grand a month in interest payments and faces forclosure if the buyers balk.  It's important to remember that, in the long-term, the Overture Center will be fine.  It's larger than the old Civic Center but the city's a lot bigger than it was 30 years ago, too.  It's still growing.  If Madison's government lags behind that growth a bit, maybe it's time for the University to step in and take a larger role in the city's cultural life, if it can.

Update 1/8/09:  So it turns out I was off-base fretting over the debt.  Apparently the ODC is planning on taking care of that themselves.


Anonymous said...

One thing to note is while UW-Green Bay owns the Weidner Center, it is no longer the presenter. UWGB got out of the presenting business in 2005 when faced with annual deficits that threatened to endanger academic programs. Currently, an independent 501(c)(3), Weidner Center Presents, is the presenting organization, and of course other organizations like the Green Bay Symphony and independent presenters also rent the facilities along with its use by student performing groups.

Pete Gruett said...

That's a very good point, Ellen, and I suppose I should clarify that I had envisioned a similar situation for UW - Madison ownership of Overture. The University seldom needs facilities that size but, if it owned the center, UW arts programs would have an expanded option to use them in addition to their own facilities while the center would largely operate as it has.