What had been touted as a brief update on exploratory discussions between city staff and the Van Wezel Foundation turned into a tense discussion Tuesday during the regular City Commission meeting.
After a news release issued last month said the city and the foundation were in discussions to determine whether the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall should continue to be a city-run department, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo requested the commission discuss the topic.
“I want some more insight on where this came from,” Caragiulo said Tuesday.
City Manager Bob Bartolotta explained that two years ago, after the Van Wezel had suffered a $1.2 million shortfall in its budget, the commission had made it a priority for city staff to review the facility’s ongoing operations.
That had prompted Bartolotta and city staff to begin discussions on the following future options:
• Continue to operate the Van Wezel as a city department.
• Explore signing a private management contract for operations, similar to those at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers and the Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg. Under this alternative, a private company would manage the Van Wezel, with the city paying a fee for the service.
• Create a new, nonprofit organization to manage both the day-to-day operations and the long-term fundraising efforts.
• Consolidate the operations of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Van Wezel Foundation under a long-term lease arrangement, with the nonprofit entity having authority over governance, operations, expenses and fundraising.
During the meeting, Bartolotta noted the hall ended the last fiscal year with a $400,000 profit.
“The question now becomes, ‘What is the long-term vision 10 to 20 years from now?’” Bartolotta said. “Do you want us to continue in the way we are going with the Van Wezel Foundation?”
Van Wezel Foundation Chairman Mark Famiglio appeared surprised by the discussion.
“We have spent hundreds of hours and $40,000 analyzing the finances of the hall and made a determination we would support any collaboration, so the community could utilize the nonprofit status of the foundation to promote and expand operations of the hall,” Famiglio said. “We were told by Mr. Bartolotta to move full-steam ahead.”
The foundation board, which has existed for 20 years and has provided $9 million toward the hall’s operations, has told city staff it could raise $15 million toward future operations if an agreement were reached to give it more control over those operations.
“If the foundation is successful, the financial issues go away,” Bartolotta told the City Commission. “If not, the issues come back to your front door and I need to know if you want (the foundation board members) to promise they can raise that money as part of a contract.”
Mayor Suzanne Atwell and Commissioners Willie Shaw, Shannon Snyder and Caragiulo declined to provide direction. They expressed frustration with the advanced stage of the talks with the foundation.
“I want to see a lot more details before I consider turning over such a facility,” Snyder said. “There’s a lot of details that need to be discussed and reviewed.”
Shaw agreed. “We’re new on the board and this is our first conversation on this,” Shaw said. “We need some time to have further conversations.”
Famiglio seemed flabbergasted that the new commissioners were unaware of details from the discussions that had been held.
“We were told to move ahead full-steam,” Famiglio repeated. “I’m just a little concerned we put so much time and attention into something you weren’t even aware of.”
Bartolotta maintained that every commissioner was aware of the talks, thanks to individual meetings with staff, but most of the newer commissioners wanted more time to digest the options.
Shaw made a motion, which was approved, to table the discussions for at least two months, so city staff and all the commissioners could be brought up to speed on the options.
“The Van Wezel is a gold mine and we need to be careful with whatever we do moving forward,” Atwell said. “It’s a fragile and beautiful piece of land.”
Famiglio said the foundation board members have “no interest in taking over operations of the hall without participation of the city in every way.”
Still, he said, “I’m a little concerned about the fact we spent so much time and money supporting the hall in this context. It really concerns me.”
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