As Fate Would Have It
In 2010, Overture Center for the Arts was in debt and its future in crisis. Mayoral aide Janet Piraino recalls the nerve-wracking negotiations and the unlikely person who saved the day.
The city and Overture officials spent months trying to hammer out an agreement on the future of Overture Center. The questions were extremely controversial: Would Overture remain a public entity like the Civic Center before it, or would it become private? Would the staff remain city employees or become private ones and lose their public pension benefits? Would the city continue to support Overture financially if it became a private entity? If so, to what degree?
Negotiations were bumpy, to say the least. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz reached an agreement with Overture officials to keep Overture as a public entity and the workers as unionized employees. But there wasn’t consensus on the city council for the public option. The decision had to be made by the end of the year, and the clock was ticking. Agreement still hadn’t been reached on the Friday before the last council meeting of the year, which was the following Tuesday. As the mayor’s representative on the city negotiating team, I was well aware of the policy and political ramifications of failing to reach agreement by the deadline. So I was happy when we all agreed to continue negotiations over the weekend.
The Saturday negotiating session at Overture did not produce any breakthroughs. Given the time it would take to draft the agreement and shop it around to see if it had enough support to pass the city council and the Overture board of directors, we knew Sunday was pretty much our last chance to get to “yes.”
I awoke Sunday morning to the sound of snowplows. It had snowed fifteen inches overnight and the city was at a standstill. The next sound I heard was my cell phone blowing up. Everyone was calling to say the roads were too bad to make it downtown to the negotiating session. To make matters worse, we had planned to meet at Overture again, but the policy was to close the building any time the weather was too bad to run the Metro bus system. And one of the calls I got was the notification that the roads were too bad to run the buses.
We had to meet. If we didn’t, Overture’s future would be in doubt. There had to be something I could do to make this happen. Then I got an idea. I called the negotiators to get their home addresses. My next call was to Al Schumacher, who was the Madison streets superintendent at the time. I told him I was sending him the addresses of the negotiators and asked if he would plow out the streets that would allow them to get to a main salt route that would lead to downtown.
Long story short, the strategy worked! The plows worked their magic. The negotiators made it downtown safely. I was able to get a conference room at the Madison Concourse Hotel and we spent the day hammering out the final details of an agreement that laid out a future for Overture. Overture would become a private entity, with provisions to protect employee benefits. The city would provide Overture with the same subsidy it provided to the old Civic Center, adjusted for inflation—about $2 million annually. The Madison Common Council approved the agreement the following Tuesday. The Overture board agreed.
There are many people who deserve praise for the agreement on Overture. And they know who they are … with one possible exception. To this day, I’m not sure that Al Schumacher and his staff realize the important role they played in charting Overture’s future.
This story is a web exclusive component of a feature story on Overture Center's tenth anniversary that appears in the September 2014 issue of Madison Magazine. Read the full story here.