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Overture Center
The lobby of the Overture Center, whose future is being determined by Madison's City Council.

Despite the pressure of a looming Dec. 31 deadline, the Madison City Council early Wednesday delayed a decision on whether to choose city or private, nonprofit ownership for financially-struggling Overture Center.

The delay came as council members struggled to choose from three basic choices: city ownership with a private operator, private ownership and operations, or a public authority owning and operating the $205 million facility.

Now, new hybrid options may emerge.

"I think what we need is more time," said Ald. Brian Solomon, 10th District, during the sometimes testy nine-hour meeting. "This is what happens when critical decision making gets handicapped by an unrealistic deadline."

At 1:15 a.m. Wednesday the council recessed and immediately reconvened as a "committee of the whole," meaning it could speak freely about the Overture challenge.

An informal straw poll showed the most support for the public authority, but no option got 11 votes and it was clear all need more work.

The council also is deciding on the size of a city operating subsidy for the arts center and what sort of strings to attach to the money for the new operator, especially relating to the fate of city employees who now work at the arts center and risk losing city wages and benefits.

"There is no option that will solve all the problems," council President Mark Clear said, saying not making a choice Wednesday morning would be a "failure."

Ald. Chris Schmidt, 11th District, shot back: "It's not our failure. We have been doing our job. The other side can give us more time or we can let it go dark."

At 3:40 a.m., the council reconvened its regular meeting and decided a council delegation, the mayor's office, and city attorney should meet with Overture representatives to discuss what is acceptable.

The council's next regular meeting is scheduled for Dec. 14.

At the meeting Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, speaker after speaker — including two former mayors — stressed the importance of preserving Overture but differed on how to do it.

Whatever choice is made, all must serve to "protect, preserve, and enhance this great resource," former Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner said.

Philanthropist W. Jerome Frautschi, who donated the $205 million to build Overture, did not attend the meeting.

Deciding ownership for Overture is part of a path to erase $28.6 million in public debt since banks liquidated a special trust fund in mid-2008.

If the debt isn't resolved, the city faces a possible liability of roughly $6 million and Overture could possibly close.

In a June 22 deal, Overture officials, banks and donors agreed to eliminate the $28.6 million debt — including $15 million from donors — if the city would buy the arts center on State Street for $1 by year's end. The proposed nonprofit operator, 201 State Foundation, would run the facility.

But Clear, fearing that plan lacked council support, weeks ago proposed an option under which 201 State Foundation would acquire the building for $1 and run it, and the city would deliver an annual $2 million subsidy. The option, however, could leave a shortfall of millions for building maintenance.

In recent days, Alds. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and Schmidt proposed that a remade Madison Cultural Arts District, Overture's current operator, own and operate the arts facility as a public authority for a transition period with a $2 million annual city subsidy. The city, meanwhile, would appoint a special commission to study Overture's future.

The council, although divided on the best option, generally agreed the new owner/operator must have open meetings and records and performance standards, that an endowment be created, and employees somehow be protected.

But Ald. Michael Schumacher, 18th District, blasted colleagues for micromanaging.

Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, said: "I really want to beg the donors to hang in there. I don't want to play chicken with the banks and the donors."

201 State Foundation Chairwoman Deirdre Garton said MCAD and her organization could support city or private ownership with a private operator and vowed a "strategic planning process with broad community input." MCAD and 201 State Foundation don't support the public authority option.

Former Mayor Paul Soglin, who served on a special Overture ad hoc committee, encouraged keeping city employees, creating an endowment fund, and pursing the public authority as a means to save the arts facility while the community can take the time to determine its best course of the long-term.

Organized labor spoke for the public authority option as a way to protect the wages and benefits of dedicated city workers, guarantee open meetings, and protect taxpayer investments.

Jennifer McCulley, representing AFSCME Local 60, said having a private operator would hit worker salaries, mean higher health insurance premiums, and the loss of state pension benefits.

But Sensenbrenner, who has spoken for the donors, and Overture President Tom Carto said there would be negative implications to the public authority option.

The option would create major cash flow problems for Overture because donors would be hesitant to give to an entity with an uncertain future as the study unfolded, Sensenbrenner said.

Carto said MCAD's budget for 2010-11 depends on $500,000 in transition fundraising that would be put at risk.

MCAD member Nino Amato advised a delay until Dec. 14 and proposed city officials meet in person with Overture donors to discuss options.

Mary Berryman Agard, an arts consultant helping with the city's cultural plan, said Overture is a world class facility but in its relative infancy still lacks a world class board, management, employees, programming, outreach, population base, and more.

Agard said it's important to keep city employees and best to have a governance model that involves all elements on the community and reaches out to the region and beyond.

Under any option, "we will continue to be in a period of experimentation in the Overture Center," Agard said, adding, "The city will never escape being the pocket of last resort for Overture Center."


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