The Right Note is a weekly opinion column published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
According to a 2009 announcement, the Artisphere was supposed to be open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, attract over 250,000 visitors a year, become profitable in three years, and spur additional economic development in Rosslyn.
Two years later, the Artisphere produced massive first-year operational cost overruns and revenue shortages that would require escalating taxpayer subsidies for the foreseeable future. County Manager Barbara Donnellan produced what she deemed “a much more realistic plan.”
The new plan has still failed to put the Artisphere on a trajectory towards self-sufficiency. The bottom line is that we have pumped millions of taxpayer dollars into it, and the Artisphere is still nowhere near fulfilling the promises the County Board made to us, not once but twice.
Last week, we learned that the County Board had voted unanimously to bail out the Signature Theater to the tune of $250,000. The bailout covers the theater’s delinquent taxes — taxes they chose not to pay in an effort to “control expenses”. This bailout led one newspaper to deem the theater “too fabulous to fail.”
How would this have gone over with Treasurer Frank O’Leary if the offender had been anyone but a county-backed project? Quite possibly, it would have been sold to pay the debt.
Instead, the County Board essentially made a simple spreadsheet maneuver. The taxes were magically marked as paid courtesy of the rest of us who pay our taxes every year while controlling other costs in our budget. The money is still in the general fund to be spent elsewhere this year, while the theater is simply off the hook.
If you reach back into your memory banks, you may remember the County Board’s approval of another theater project in January 2012. As part of site plan concessions, the County will receive a black box theater on Wilson Boulevard. The County will pay to fill in the developer-provided shell, but it will make out well on the lease, at $1 a year. This is a similar deal to the 15 years of free rent for the Artisphere. The new theater will likely not be saddled with the repayment of a huge construction loan, something Signature still owes to the tune of $7.8 million.
So, will the financial honeymoon end soon after operations begin as it did with the previous two projects? According to the press release announcing the new theater last January:
“County staff will work with the Arlington Commission for the Arts and others to develop a business plan and economic options for the operations of the theater. These will address a series of cost, use and operational alternatives for review by the County Manager in the preparation of future budgets.”
Hopefully these are not the same county staff who assisted with the Artisphere’s original business plan or its “new” and “more realistic” plan. Of course, if they can count on the County Board for ongoing subsidies and bailouts, creating a business plan is little more than an intellectual exercise anyway.
The bottom line is Arlingtonians deserve more accountability than we are getting from our taxpayer-funded arts endeavors.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.