Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Great Peoples Center for the Performing Arts

Someone a long time ago said "A fool and his money are soon parted". Pair a fool and someone else's money and the results are very predictable. This is a story of charity, politics, and mismanagement at best, theft at worst.

W. Jerome Frautschi is a third generation Madisonian. He grew up in his family business called Webcrafters. They are a book publisher still manufacturing here in Madison and must be a very good one. This man became, over his life, rich beyond most of our dreams.

His mate is Pleasant Rowland. You may not recognize that name, but most of you out there no doubt have patronized one of her companies in the past if you have a little girl in your family. Pleasant Rowland started making high quality dolls and educational books back in 1985. She started mailing her first catalogs, going directly to consumers in 1986. The "Pleasant Company" was on its way. The dolls they made were called "American Girls" and they were a smash. The company's name changed to American Girl and was sold to the Mattel Corporation in 1998 for $700 million.

Mr. Frautschi and Ms. Rowland wanted to do something for the city they have loved all of their lives, Madison, Wisconsin (from where I write this piece tonight). Did they ever.

On July 27, 1998 Mr. Frautschi announced the creation of the Overture Foundation. He started it with a donation of $50 million. The express goal was to create a world class performing arts facility right in the heart of downtown Madison.

A quote from Mr. Frautschi on that fateful day:

"Since no private fund raising effort will be required to complete the Project," said Mr. Frautschi, "the arts organizations can now focus on raising money to enhance their programming and operations, and not worry about capital expenditures for performance and exhibition facilities." (italics and bold mine)
And a portent of things to come:

While no public funding is anticipated (italics and bold mine), the organization will attempt to secure the cooperation of the State of Wisconsin, Dane County and the City of Madison to undertake the project. Equally important will be the continuing collaboration of the local arts and community groups in realizing this vision.
Mr. Frautschi and Ms. Rowland eventually must have felt that $50 million was not enough to do all they wanted to do with the newly created "Arts District". They ponied up another $50 million and then another $105 million! For those who are numerically challenged that is a grand total of a whopping $205 million, one of the largest private donations to the arts in history.

The foundation hired the famous architect Cesar Pelli to design the new Overture Center. You can view some of his works, including the finished portions of the Overture Center on his website.

Then the foundation strongarmed the city of Madison into using eminent domain powers to push out all of the small business that were in the way of the immense project. Only one took it to court and here he is. I am sure if you wanted to talk to the owner he would have some great stories. They moved his burger joint to a different location in Madison.

Phase One of the Overture Center opened up in September of 2004. I still haven't been there but my wife has. I guess it is pretty nice. Phase two is under construction as we speak. Honestly I am not sure how many phases there are and frankly I don't care.

One month ago the Overture Center announced that it wanted the City of Madison to co-sign for a loan to cover maintenance costs. The loan is for $17 million. That's right, if the Overture Center runs out of dough, the taxpayers pick up the tab. Please re-read the two indented quotes above, taken from the Overture Center's own website.

The Overture Center states that the gift of $205 million would see the project to completion, but then they need more money for upkeep. I could hardly believe my ears! Why? How? I say mismanagement on a criminal level. The official reason is a "bad stock market". Bullshit.

If you are managing a huge pot of money are you telling me that you had it 100% invested in stocks? If that is true, you should go to jail. No one should be 100% in stocks, whether you have $20,000 or $205 million. That is one of the reasons I felt bad, but not too bad for the Enron employees that lost their retirement. No, it is not right that their money was stolen, but it was very dumb for them to have their entire retirement fund in stocks - many of them had it in one stock - Enron!

I think the Overture Center got robbed by someone, somewhere. It may have been a broker turning comissions, or whoever. Maybe the folks who ran the Overture Center building should have maybe - maybe - scaled it down a bit? Or left a little money for maintenance at the end - like $17 million?

I feel very bad for Mr. Frautschi and Ms. Rowland who gave that immense amount of money - just to see that foundation beg for more. I feel worse for the taxpayers of the City of Madison.

**Now, jokingly, we call the Overture Center the "Great Peoples Center for the Performing Arts" - a term I love coined by my favorite newsman of all time, Madison's very own Tim Morrisey over at WTDY.

No comments: