CITY OPERA HOUSE/WHARTON CENTER

COH

Porterhouse Statement on Wharton Center/City Opera House Contract

Throughout Porterhouse Productions’ relationship with the City Opera House and Wharton Center, our purpose has been to stay positive and open to the collaborative opportunities presented by an entity like Wharton, while still asking the necessary questions to protect our right and the community’s right to access and enjoy this publicly owned building. As one of the major producers of concerts and events at the Opera House, we felt compelled to lend our voice in shaping the future of the venue to ensure it was the best fit for all. The process wasn’t always comfortable – for anyone involved – but it was both necessary and productive. At the end of the day, because user groups and community members came forward and got involved, the public had the invaluable opportunity to share their input on this operating arrangement. Students and young professionals who might not otherwise ever engage in local politics came to a city commission meeting to speak out. Arts groups had a chance to share their stories of being in the Opera House and what the venue means to them. Opera House staff and board members were able to publicly present their arguments. The community, though coming from different viewpoints, all rallied around a central cause: protecting the future of one of Traverse City’s most treasured landmarks.

While we still believe the ideal operating arrangement for the venue would be one in which the management remained in local control, we appreciate the financial commitment Wharton has made to the venue, and plan to continue producing our events and shows under its umbrella. Because the public and user groups fought strongly for guarantees of rates and access, the contract was refined to the point where we now feel cautiously optimistic about moving ahead if the commission approves the agreement. It is our hope that we will turn over a new leaf through our relationship with Wharton; that our past challenges with the oversight of the facility will be dissipated, and that we can reinstate as many of our shows as possible that were canceled for 2010 under former management. We hope to meet with Wharton as soon as this week to discuss our relationship going forward, and the next steps for bringing Porterhouse events back to the City Opera House.

We look forward to the return of Porterhouse events at the City Opera House in the very near future.

12/8/2009 – BY Sheri McWhirter

smcwhirter@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — The show will go on at the City Opera House and a downstate group will raise the curtain.

On Monday, Traverse City leaders unanimously approved a three-year contract between the opera house and the Wharton Center for Performing Arts to manage the facility on Front Street. It’s a deal pitched as a way to boost performance offerings and reign in deficit spending at the city-owned historic building.

“They are absolute pros and we look forward to working with them,” said Sam Porter, of Porterhouse Productions, a frequent opera house renter who previously voiced concerns about maintaining local access to the facility.

Wharton, an organization based at Michigan State University in East Lansing, will take over operations, finances and bookings for the City Opera House on July 1, but will play an advisory role until then. The opera house will pay Wharton $75,000 a year for three years to manage the downtown Traverse City facility and Wharton will absorb any financial losses during that time, but will not cover the opera house’s $250,000 operational debt.

Any earned profits will be split between the opera house and Wharton, with the latter receiving 25 percent. Additionally, annual financial reports will be filed with the city.

Wharton and opera house officials worked on the deal without public input for months and last month brought it to elected officials’ attention. The secret negotiations angered some city residents, who attended a Nov. 23 city meeting to complain and express concerns about continued local access.

City and Wharton officials agreed to include in the management contract a clause that ensures local access to rent the opera house will be maintained.

Those conversations are encouraging, said both Porter and Ed Downing, executive director for the Traverse Symphony Orchestra.

Downing said he took Wharton’s offer to cover financial losses as a sign of commitment to the opera house.

Commissioner MaryAnn Moore said she’s glad Wharton worked out concerns about local access and she “thinks it’s great for Traverse City.”

Angela Schuler, opera house board co-chairman, said they are pleased to move forward with Wharton, despite recent concerns in the community about how the deal was struck.

“Ultimately, I think the integrity of the proposal spoke for itself,” Schuler said.

The debate about opera house management showed the community’s interest and commitment to the facility, said Commissioner Mike Gillman.

“The community was reminded this is a jewel and should be treated as such,” he said.

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Wharton contract process concerns citizens

Published: November 24, 2009 07:40 am

By Sheri McWhirter
smcwhirter@record-eagle.com
TRAVERSE CITY — A potential operating agreement for the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City brought dozens out to voice support and concerns, including issues with secretive deal-making with a downstate group.

The Traverse City Commission met Monday to discuss a proposed three-year contract between the opera house board and the Wharton Center for Performing Arts at Michigan State University, but did not take any action. Many city residents spoke favorably about the organizational abilities and experiences Wharton could bring to the city-owned opera house, but others voiced worries about how the public was left out on decision-making.

“I think the public will always crash the party when they’re not invited,” said Beth Milligan, a Traverse City resident who also noted there’s a “long history in Traverse City of back-room deals.”

Wharton stands to receive $75,000 annually to manage the opera house and would guarantee any losses be absorbed by the organization, should the facility fail to turn a profit. Wharton would not cover the opera house’s current $250,000 debt.

Residents questioned why Wharton is the sole organization pitched to run the opera house and why a local manager wasn’t pursued.

“It feels like the decision has all but been made,” said Ansel Bowden, of Traverse City. “I think there needs to be more time for discussion and input from residents.”

Mayor Chris Bzdok described the situation as “being painted into a corner” with Wharton as the only option.

“It’s been determined without our input and without our knowledge. I don’t want that to happen again,” Bzdok said.

Michael Moore, founder of the Traverse City Film Festival, said festival officials were never consulted about a deal with Wharton, despite being among the most frequent facility renters.

“You don’t make the best decisions when you make them this way,” Moore said. “The best decisions get made when everyone is involved in the decision.”

It’s not so much a concern about how well Wharton would run the venue, he said, but how contract details for a publicly owned building were negotiated behind closed doors.

Sam Porter, of event presenter Porterhouse Productions, another frequent venue renter, said he opposes exclusive management at the opera house, preferring a partnership among stakeholders.

“I hope that after this talk we have the chance to collaborate,” Porter said.

Bob Spence, co-chairman of the opera house board, said the deal required a confidentiality agreement at the outset, but opera house officials are “not trying to hide anything.” He spoke about local access being maintained for groups like the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, the film festival and Porterhouse, and how the board turned to Wharton because it can protect the opera house’s financial and programming interests.

Wharton Executive Director Mike Brand said there are no pre-conceived ideas about what acts will be booked. He guaranteed local access will continue and agreed to insert language to that effect in the proposed contract.

“I think we’ll try to make a business out of what’s already there and then grow it,” Brand said.

Commissioner Mike Gillman said he’s not sure another offer to manage the facility without a financial risk — beyond the annual fee to Wharton — will surface.

“That’s an offer I don’t think we can turn down,” he said.

The facility on Front Street went through a multimillion-dollar renovation paid for by a long-running community fundraising campaign. The venue is now available for private rentals as a performance house directed by the City Opera House Heritage Association, the nonprofit that raised money for restoration.

The opera house is entirely funded through donations and venue rental rates, paying both taxes and rent to the city. No city tax dollars go to the opera house and Wharton’s fee will be paid from the facility’s operational fund, should the deal be approved by city commissioners.

Wharton will take over operations, bookings and financial responsibility for the opera house on July 1, 2010. Wharton and the opera house will split any earned profits, with the downstate organization taking a 25-percent cut, according to contract details.

City Manager R. Ben Bifoss will work out local access issues in the proposed contract and will bring the matter back before commissioners, perhaps as early as next month.

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Public Expresses Support, Concern Over Opera House Plan

Listen to IPR’s interview here: http://ipr.interlochen.org/episode/5700

11/24/2009 – Last night, Traverse City commissioners met to examine the City Opera House’s plan to have Lansing’s Wharton Center manage the historic theatre. And nearly 25 people cmmented on the issue at the study session.City Manager Ben Bifoss offered to meet with the parties involved and present his findings to the panel.Mayor Chris Bzdok said he was unhappy with City Opera House managers for springing the idea on the city without much warning. He said that makes it hard for the commissioners to make a decision.“There’s a certain amount of uncertainty there,” Bzdok says. “And if our job is to make sure before we hand the keys over, how do you help us? Is there better way we could peel that banana?”

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Editorial: Is deal worth loss of trust?

Record Eagle – Published: November 28, 2009 10:05 pm

Haven’t we been here and done this?

About two years ago city residents had their ire up over a proposal to bring a steel I-beam sculpture titled “Time Myth” to Traverse City and plunk it down in the middle of the Open Space.

Their anger seemed equally divided: putting anything at all on the Open Space that would block views of West Bay; and the fact that the deal had almost been finalized before the public knew what the heck a “Time Myth” was. Residents felt they were the last to know, and they didn’t like it.

Fast forward to last week when a lot of people wondered how we came within a whisker of approving a three-year deal for the prestigious Wharton Center for Performing Arts to manage the City Opera House although virtually no one outside the opera house community knew a thing about the deal.

In neither case was someone trying to pull a fast one or feather their own nest at the public’s expense. In both cases dedicated people who had put in long hours of volunteer work for the city were doing what they thought was best.

In both cases, though, the process bypassed the people who ultimately matter the most — the taxpaying public.

While a lot of people panned the Time Myth idea (partly because of the sculpture itself and partly because this was the Open Space, after all), the Wharton Center proposal is an altogether different issue that deserves careful consideration, after the fact or not.

After all, the opera house stands to come under excellent management and benefit from expanded and upgraded programming; and there’s Wharton’s promise to absorb any losses during the proposed three-year contract.

But the fact remains that this was a closed loop. Some opera house people talked to some Wharton people and all of a sudden, with no request for proposals, no other bids and no public notice, we’ve got a deal — or we’ve almost got a deal; the city commission has to sign off, and plenty of them were not happy with the chain of events.

Mayor Chris Bzdok described the situation as “being painted into a corner” with Wharton as the only option. “It’s been determined without our input and without our knowledge. I don’t want that to happen again,” Bzdok said.

And maybe not this time, either.

After all, the Traverse City area is not without resources or resourceful people who could perhaps offer the city similar services.

Whatever one thinks of his politics, the city would be foolish indeed not to look to Traverse City Film Festival co-founder Michael Moore and the expertise the festival has gained over the years. The group manages the State Theatre, which is open every day of the year and offers a dizzying array of programs, after all. In fact, the State is one of the most frequent opera house renters.

At a recent city commission meeting at which the Wharton proposal came in for criticism because it looked to be a “back-room deal,” Moore said festival officials were never consulted. “You don’t make the best decisions when you make them this way,” he said.

He’s right.

Bob Spence, co-chairman of the opera house board, said the deal required a confidentiality agreement at the outset. Sorry, but this is city business.

The opera house is a private, non-profit organization; it pays rent and taxes to the city, and salaries come out of opera house revenue. But in the end, the city — and city taxpayers — own the opera house, and city business must be public business.

If the opera house, which is carrying a $250,000 debt, had said, “We think we can do better with an outside manager” and gone out for bids, no problems. That’s what a public process is all about.

But that’s not what happened, and we’re in a jam. Now, the city can accept what appears to be a generous and beneficial offer from a renowned operator in the field, but at a cost — more public trust down the drain.

This isn’t about the Wharton Center. It is, as it too often is around here, about process and who gets — or decides — to speak for the rest of us.

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TC Commission to vote on Wharton Center

Traverse City Record-Eagle – Published: December 02, 2009 07:30 am

3-year deal would cede management

By Sheri McWhirter
smcwhirter@record-eagle.com
TRAVERSE CITY — A decision could come soon on the City Opera House’s future.

Traverse City commissioners may decide next week whether to sign off on a proposed three-year management deal between the opera house board and the Wharton Center for Performing Arts from Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Wharton would take over operations, bookings and financial responsibility for the venue in July, should commissioners approve.

The deal was negotiated quietly for months and the public and elected officials learned about the proposal late in the game, a situation that drew heavy criticism at a Nov. 23 city meeting. The contract could have been pursued differently, but it doesn’t diminish the promotional expertise Wharton can offer the opera house, officials said.

“In hindsight, could we have done it differently? Yes, maybe. But I don’t know that we’d come to a different conclusion,” said Bob Spence, opera house board co-chairman.

Spence said board members discussed other possible management organizations, including national companies, but did not issue a request for proposals. They decided a deal with nonprofit Wharton couldn’t be outdone, he said.

Wharton would be paid $75,000 a year and will absorb any financial losses during the contract period. It will not cover the opera house’s current $250,000 operational debt.

“I just hope (commissioners) keep in mind the fact that Wharton is a high-quality venue manager and we’re lucky to have this proposal in front of us,” Spence said.

Local author Doug Stanton is a frequent opera house renter for an author’s speaker series that raises money for college scholarships. He’s not worried that Wharton will deny local access to the venue. Additionally, the partnership will be beneficial, no matter how it was reached, he said.

“It sounds like a good deal thus far,” Stanton said. “I wouldn’t position this as a back-room deal. My perception was it was a volunteer board trying to figure out how to stay in the black.”

And that’s exactly what Wharton intends to do for the opera house, said Michael Brand, Wharton’s executive director.

“I think we can bring the knowledge of how to lay the business plan out for how this theater should operate,” Brand said.

Wharton will book a dozen or more events each year, leaving plenty of available dates for local groups like the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, Traverse City Film Festival, Porterhouse Productions and more, he said.

Mayor Chris Bzdok said it’s important for city leaders to ensure local access is maintained at the opera house. He also said surprise contracts like the one commissioners will consider shouldn’t happen that way.

“People expect us to be in charge, so we need to make sure we’re in charge,” Bzdok said.

If you go

The Traverse City Commission will discuss whether to approve a three-year City Opera House management contract with the Wharton Center for Performing Arts on Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. on the second floor at the Governmental Center, 400 Boardman Ave. in Traverse City.