Build it and they … might not come.
Such was the conclusion of Benjamin Jervis, who conducted an analysis to determine the feasibility of Brookings building and supporting a performing arts center (PAC).
He did the work as part of his master’s study in public policy from Harvard University this past year.
He was contracted to do the work as follow-up of the 10-year Urban Renewal Plan written in 2010, which called for five major building projects. Of those — a new city hall, community center, PAC, public restrooms and enhancement of a private museum — only the restrooms have been built.
The major roadblocks to the success of a PAC here, Jervis wrote in his report, include a lack of organizational identity, community fragmentation, wavering financial health, feelings of territoriality among theater groups and Brookings’ isolation, which makes it difficult to lure people to performances.
But problems are more systemic and basic than even that, he said.
“The inability of the theater groups to even consider sharing space signifies a major barrier to future collaboration,” Jervis wrote. Of note is the insistence of theater representatives on having separate theaters and a multi-purpose space for musical performances.
Jervis’ analysis took into account the economy — including the financial status of the county, the closure of local stores — how other coastal PACs have succeeded; the older, somewhat reclusive retirees who live on limited incomes; and Brookings’ isolated location.
But what killed the idea for Jervis is that the Brookings’ performing arts community is too divided and disorganized to get to the point of constructing such a facility, much less keeping it going for years.
His findings indicate that, while stakeholders agree there is a need for theatrical and musical space in town, the desire for at least two theaters each with 100 seats and respective sets of green rooms and storage space are conditions that would make it highly unlikely for an startup community group to succeed.
Jervis noted that just to build Newport’s $3 million PAC took years of fundraising and community outreach — and all but $500,000 was paid for using urban renewal bonds. To this day, 50 percent of its operating budget — $70,000 a year — is paid for by the city.
The city, Jervis noted, had a strong political will to publicly fund construction, and a high organizational capacity — the city owns the facility and the nonprofit Oregon Coast Council of the Arts serves as manager — going into the process.
“Beyond these financial and operations successes was a major advantage the center had even before it was built,” he wrote. “Prior to the PAC, the five tenant theater and dance companies shared the same facility. A track record of groups working together successfully in one space was a good omen.”
That was exemplified in Florence, as well.
Theater activists knew they had a hurdle to jump from the start, being as the city only had hotel space to accommodate 80 to 100 guests and performances were held in local churches.
“Despite lacking a physical space, the performing arts association had unified organizational capacity and purpose,” Jervis wrote. “An extensive community effort led to the center’s construction. A capital campaign raised $1 million and the remaining $2 million came from a county-level bond issue, funded by the area’s transient occupancy tax.”
In today’s dollars, the cost of such construction would be $6 million.
The Florence Event Center faced a deficit last year and convinced the city council to allocate $205,000 in property taxes to support it. It continues to receive 40 percent of city hotel revenue, as well.
“The original underlying belief, or hope, was ‘build it and they will come,’” said center Director Kevin Rhodes. “The reality was it was more widely used by the local community than outside organizations.”
It hosts an average of 375 events each year; collectively, Brookings performing arts hosts fewer than half of that in a year.
Cultural events throughout the nation often are successfully launched with assistance from outside funding, Jervis said. But those usually are in cities boasting high populations — and whose populace has a high regard for cultural events.
Even then, 80 percent of the 700 cultural buildings in the United States go over-budget — some by as much as 200 percent, according to a 2008 study conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC). In the financing realm, Brookings faces high hurdles, too, Jervis wrote.
“Foundations that may fund construction of a center want to see a high level of community buy-in and benefit,” he wrote. “The latter is complicated by a large share of the benefits going to tourists and part-time residents.”
That, too, is backed up by research in the NORC study that indicates that few community or economic benefits were identified as the result of the construction of such facilities.
Project sponsors expect to have 50 to 70 percent of total costs secured up front, and foundations will usually provide no more than 20 to 30 percent capital costs, Jervis said.
Brookings isn’t a lost cause, Jervis said. But a much stronger base — of organization, enthusiasm and support — must be built before city officials should even consider building a performing arts center.
Jervis suggested conducting more in-depth surveys of spring and summer visitors and expanding the idea of a PAC to include informal and general events, such as banquets, weddings and fundraising events.
“Implementing a coordinated effort will require organization and support,” he wrote. “While competition between theater groups and disagreement over the need for a PAC may persist, there is unlikely to be opposition to a coordinated effort to support the performing arts generally in Brookings.”
Ultimately, Jervis said, a committee should be convened among stakeholders to collaborate on everything from advertising to fundraising, joint performances and cooperation.
“Despite long-standing rivalries and the fragmentation of the performing arts community in Brookings, there is a near-universal desire by stakeholders to collaborate in some way and to mend old-time rifts,” Jervis wrote. “Strong and entrenched personalities at many of the stakeholder organizations make this a challenging task.”
It’s those small, collaborative steps that could, some day, result in the construction of a successful PAC.
“There is an air of creativity and devotion to the arts in Brookings,” he said, but until then, “I recommend against the near-term use of city resources for such a project, including hiring a consultant for a feasibility study, applying for grants and other steps toward building.”