Overture's Cloud

(or How to Turn Gray Skies into Blue Ones)

Nov 10, 2010

“Clear your minds,” the former mayor of Madison, Paul Soglin, told the WISC-TV3 editorial board before he proceeded to hold court on the Overture matter for an hour.

Before projecting into the future—the “what ifs” of Overture ownership and operation—consider the chronological past. “The order,” he continued, “affects how you analyze what’s happening.”

What’s happening is that the current mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, and the private foundation that supports Overture struck a deal. Under the arrangement, the city would buy Overture from its current owner Overture Development Corporation for a buck, the private nonprofit 201 State would operate the facility, and the banks that hold a $28 million note on the building would accept $16 million of it from private donors and forgive the balance. Neat and tidy, right?

Wrong. The city council has to approve the deal by December 31 and there is absolutely no consensus on whether a publicly owned/privately operated facility is the best solution. For instance, lots of people including Soglin say labor issues are a problem regardless of who’s in the driver’s seat. He and others also roundly criticize the building’s philanthropists, Pleasant Rowland and Jerry Frautschi, for their opulent choices on everything from the expensive tile floors that Soglin says are much too porous for heavy use to the many and varied lighting fixtures whose replacement parts don’t exactly come cheap.

The short version of Soglin’s take on the saga is that Overture was plunked down in the middle of the city without any public discussion or buy-in (unlike Monona Terrace, which he spearheaded, and which was finally born out of a public referendum after a 54-year debate) and a dozen years and a Great Recession later, the city—if it goes through with the purchase—is about to be left holding the bag.

His biggest fear if the city buys the property? “It’s gonna take everything down,” he said. In a doomsday scenario, he went on to describe the potential drain on everything from social services to street maintenance to Monona Terrace if the financial projections for Overture are significantly underestimated. Soglin poked one hole after another in the operating model a consulting firm put together for 201 State and which he voted against as a member of an ad hoc committee the mayor put together to examine the recommendations. “The numbers are unverified,” he said.

Soglin says he supported the idea of a publicly owned and operated center until August, when he joined the advisory group and began taking a hard look at the proposal. Now he’s completely reversed his position, supporting a privately owned and operated model that would limit city and taxpayer liability.

“The city can’t buy the iceberg until it knows how much of it is underwater,” said Soglin, referring to the fact that the city has never been privy to Overture’s budget in its entirety, beginning with how much beyond the purported $205 million price tag the Frautschis spent. You can’t accurately predict future costs without that kind of baseline information, Soglin maintains.

There are so many more twists and turns to the Overture plotline and over the course of the next several weeks we are in for a serious ride. Whatever happens, the worst-case scenario in my opinion would be to let Overture go dark. Whoever ultimately owns and operates the building come January 1 has some serious work to do to save and transform it into something that each and every one of us has a stake in. How do we do it? I say we take Hizzoner Soglin’s advice to “clear our minds,” but instead of analyzing the past, let’s focus on what’s next. Let’s hold a public forum at Overture Hall, ground zero of the controversy. It’s time to decide what this building means to the rest of us—if anything—and then act on that consensus. Remember, regardless of what you think about the cushy purple seats or the travertine floors, Jerry Frautschi’s promise was only to build the building. The burden is on us to decide if we’re a smart enough city to figure out a way to enjoy it.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. E-mail her at bnardi@madisonmagazine.com.

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