City must address Washington Center repairs, finances

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts faces some difficult challenges at this point in its 26-year history.

The center, which hosts a wide variety of programs from Broadway productions to local students staging the Nutcracker ballet every December, is an incredible asset to the entire South Sound region. The performances bring visitors to South Sound and the center serves as an awesome venue for local artistic talent. The business community has rallied around the center through sponsorships and direct contributions because business owners recognize how much the arts contribute to the quality of life in South Sound.

But the center faces serious challenges — some short-term, like the needed repairs to the exterior of the building, and some long-term, like stabilizing its operating revenue to help it manage its way through difficult financial times.

The city of Olympia owns the center, at 512 Washington St. As the landlord agency, it is essential that the Olympia City Council work with a few key members of the center’s board of directors to identify the challenges and map out a path toward success — a blueprint that is sustainable for both the city and the center.

The first issue that deserves attention is the exterior stucco wall that is failing. When the stucco absorbs rainwater it cracks. The cracks allow additional water to seep into the structure, to the point where the steel and concrete building is now compromised. Fixing the exterior will cost an estimated $1.6 million.

While we hope the city is successful in its effort to sue the manufacturer of the exterior insulation finish system, the bottom line is this: The building is owned by the city and it’s the city’s responsibility to repair the damage.

Olympia spent $100,000 two years ago on a temporary fix, but that has not done the job. It’s time for the Olympia City Council to step up to its responsibility and make the repairs.

The repairs must be a priority of the council as it puts together its construction budget for all city facilities this August.

The second infrastructure issue is interior lighting at the center. There’s the general lighting, which is outdated and again the responsibility of the city, then there’s the stage lighting; which is the center’s responsibility. Lighting upgrades are a “want” not a “need” at this point.

Again, we suggest the city’s finance committee and a subcommittee of the center’s board of directors work collaboratively to resolve those issues and determine who should pay for what.

The larger, long-term question that must be resolved, is the fluctuation in city revenue going to the center’s budget.

The city collects a hotel/motel tax and dedicates half of the money to the center. That amounted to $251,827 in the center’s 2011 budget. Two years ago the center received more than $361,000 in hotel/motel tax receipts.

Because of the recession and fewer people traveling, hotel/motel tax allocations are down $110,000. To make up the difference this year, the city gave the center $100,000 from its $1.8 million performing arts center endowment fund.

While that balanced the budget this year, that’s not a wise long-term strategy. It’s like the farmer who eats his seed rather than planting it and eating the harvest, said Bob Haase, president of the center’s board of directors. Haase and City Manager Steve Hall agree that drawing down the endowment fund for daily operations is not a smart budget solution.

Numerous budget strategies have been suggested — from adding a quarter to the price of every ticket, to giving the center a larger portion of the hotel/motel tax. Some have suggested Lacey and Tumwater contribute more to the operation of the regional arts center. Other ideas from Olympia City Hall include giving the center more money from the city’s operating budget, encouraging the center to conduct a capital campaign or simply doing nothing and letting the center chart its own future.

Councilman Stephen Buxbaum is right when he said, “I think we absolutely need to make sure the center is self-sustaining.”

The question is how to get there.

Trying to resolve this at the level of the full council and the full center board is not going to work. That was proven last week when the two groups came together on the center stage for a joint meeting.

This issue deserves the direct attention of a subgroup of both organizations working together to set the 983-seat theater and its adjacent facilities on a path toward a sound financial footing.

It’s time for creativity and strong leadership from both organizations. The goal must be a long-term, stable financing plan to ensure that the Washington Center for the Performing Arts can continue as South Sound’s premiere showcase for artistic talent.

Olympian Publisher George Le Masurier, a member of the board of directors of the performing arts center, did not participate in the development of this editorial.