Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rio Grande Theatre Is a Valuable Community Resource

I'm glad I'm not a city councillor deciding who should run the Rio Grande Theatre.

Instinct tells me that it should not be Philip San Filippo; so do others' observations; but I'd want to ask some hard questions of Kathleen Albers, too.

San Filippo deserves a separate column. He's about to take on an important economic development job for which his past experience doesn't seem to qualify him. He's an experienced salesman, a tourist-development guy, but he's no economist and may not have done economic development. He recently said we'll be real busy because of the Spaceport. I hope he's right. I hereby offer to bet him $100 he ain't. (Two years ago, calling Spaceport America “the Kitty Hawk of the Future,” he predicted we'd see the next space flight here within two years. I hope his proposals for what he'd do with the RGT have more solid foundations.)

I don't think this battle started as a power grab by Mr. San Filippo. I believe that when City Manager Stuard Ed first met with the Doña Ana Arts Council, DAAC complained a little too much about its situation with the theatre. Ed walked away thinking DAAC wanted out. Then Ed invited San Filippo to submit a plan. DAAC folks say Ed heard what he wanted to hear. Maybe. I think DAAC (whose supporters say it adds significant funds to the $120,000 it gets from the city each year to run the theatre) hoped to improve its deal with the city. But I wasn't in the room.

Also, some third-parties unrelated to the city administration have significant complaints about DAAC. Folks I know and trust but can't identify here.

Economic development isn't the main purpose of a community theatre. Being a widely-used community resource that helps us be the best we can be is. Like the plaza, the theatre need not make a profit; but neither should we waste our money.

History should matter in this decision. DAAC saved the RGT, which might have disappeared like St. Genevieve's Church. DAAC did a lot of fund-raising. The community stepped up. Former DAAC Board Chair Keith Whelpley speaks of the beautiful community spirit he and others experienced. DAAC spent a lot more energy, imagination, and money than the City did making sure there's a Rio Grande Theatre to argue about today.

But the City has every right to ask DAAC to live up to a contract. If both parties agree on something, both should respect that agreement. I don't know how businesslike things were before. It wouldn't be fair suddenly to demand letter-perfect performance of a contract where that hasn't been demanded before. Unless there's been fraud, the City Council probably should extend DAAC's contract for a year, but instruct Ed to negotiate fairly with DAAC and specify expectations. “Fairly” means with respect for both taxpayers' economic interest and DAAC's important contribution to this community resource. (Let's also note the probability that imminent road construction downtown will sabotage RGT attendance.) Further, if San Filippo or anyone else has good ideas, share 'em! We all want the best for our community – and especially for the arts.

The City should also, without undermining DAAC, create a way for critics of RGT management to voice their concerns without fear of negative consequences. I'd also suggest a diverse contingency-planning committee to consider all aspects of the theatre's future. I'm not saying DAAC will fail. Nor that San Filippo definitely couldn't step in successfully in 2018 or 2019. I'm saying that if DAAC doesn't pan out and the CVB alternative doesn't look promising, we can't just punt.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 16 April 2017, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website KRWG's website; and KRWG Radio will air a spoken (and slightly condensed) version twice on Wednesday.]

[A friend I spoke with about this stuff said, "I'm glad you're writing a column about this."  I quickly replied, "I'm not."  Too many people I like and trust are on different sides of this fight, with strong views.  Unfortunately I don't always mince words, either.  So I'll probably be losing a bunch of friends over this one.  City officials frustrated by dealings with DAAC, and other critics of how the arts group is run, will feel disrespected; folks in the DAAC camp will be annoyed that I haven't hewed to anyone's line, but just tried to articulate my imperfect view of the facts.  That view starts with certainty that the highest and best use of the theater is as a community institution, not as a part of some economic-development scheme -- although the theater should be able to assist in that efforts as well.  At the same time, the City has the right and obligation to try to make sure the Theater is well run.]

[NOTE [17April2017]: It was saddening to attend the City Council meeting mentioned in the column.  A few hours before the meeting, DAAC sent the Council a letter withdrawing from consideration for a contract extension.  Several councillors were quite troubled, while others were not.  It was not clear whether, if the council had urged DAAC to reconsider and continue its management of the Rio Grande Theatre, perhaps with a slightly larger financial contribution from the City, DAAC would have considered that.  It was not clear to me.   It was not clear to Mayor Ken Miyagashima, who expressed disappointment at this turn of events and asked DAAC's board chair the question I was wondering about.  She said she was just one board-member and didn't know.  (Later, a source pointed out that given the way certain city employees and conducted themselves toward DAAC, it would have been insane to go forward working with city officials.  Some from the arts community booed Mr. San Filippo as if he were Kevin Durant returning to Oklahoma City as a Golden State Warrior.)  
So a somewhat disappointed city council, including some who stated they'd have voted to extend the DAAC contract another year but seek the kind of clear communications advocated above, voted to accept DAAC's withdrawal.   CVB will run the RGT, at least for a year.  Councillors may well consider the kind of planning committee (or citizens' board) suggested above, which could provide some oversight as well as doing the sort of contingency-planning I recommended.  It was clear that some of them, while not inclined to beg DAAC to reconsider, were uneasy about CVB as the new manager, at least without clear instruction from the City Council -- for which purpose there likely will be a work-session at an early date.
Anyway, it seemed sad.  To me and others, including several councillors, some of whom spoke of necessary "healing."  We all owe DAAC our thanks.  We may miss DAAC.  Above all I was left with the certainty that all parties, including this columnist, could have done better in this situation.]

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