If you build it and spend way too much, they’ll come and we’ll still lose millions – sound good? | PDC (and thus you, my faire citizen) prepares to up ante on Portland Center Stage Armory debt forgiveness to $4 million

It’s a good thing that many Portlanders wax grandiloquent at the drop of a beret about how precious art is and how much value it creates and how much it’s worth to them and how it should be supported by the government and even special taxes if needed.

Because according to a story in today’s Oregonian, Stumptown citizens are getting ready to watch their already significant subsidy for Portland Center Stage’s goliath Armory building tick up yet another $2 million in the form of additional debt forgiveness from the PDC. That’s on top of the $2 million the PDC forgave back in June. Who knows what the net number to date is of total public resources spent on the ill-conceived Titanic project. But it’s obviously north of $4 million.

There’s a much, much bigger story here that someone needs to write, one that goes all the way back to Vera Katz, and with luck real journalists are working on it. In a nutshell, the fantasy of what art is worth, and the soft spot developers have for empire building and “citadels”, as Mike Daisey calls them, are grinding across the reef of financial reality. And if people won’t pay what it costs in the form of buying tickets, who picks up the difference? Apparently the taxpayers.

Portland has massively subsidized a product its citizens don’t want – at least not at a price sufficient to pay for it. The idea that we should continue to subsidize loss-making artistic activities of sometimes questionable quality to the tune of millions of dollars because they somehow enrich our lives is ludicrous – especially when the city could be helping to support smaller arts groups that CAN pay their way.

And don’t be distracted by claims of how environmentally sound the building is, as if that somehow provides solace for the city losing millions of dollars on it. That’s just the Emperor’s new clothes. The greenest structure is always the one you don’t build. Spending tens of millions of dollars on a building in downtown Portland that is not needed and can’t sustain itself financially has a huge environmental cost. The Armory was a boondoggle, straight out of a Mike Daisey monologue about how regional American theatres focus more on real estate development than art – and artists.

What’s sad here is how much Portland COULD have achieved in the theatre world with the amount of money that has been squandered on the Armory. Today, ten years or more on from when the idea of building a new flagship space in town was born, Portland should have by now put itself on the map with a performing arts space and brand every bit as unique as the city’s music, bike, or food scenes. But that hasn’t happened. Imagine if, instead of deciding to plow all that city money into a single large theatre, the city had spread it around between 10-20 companies? What might the local ecosystem look like?

Like loads of Americans in the early 2000’s, Portland Center Stage was taken in by big real estate dreams and bought more house than it could ever possibly afford. And who handed over the pen and encouraged them to sign? Apparently the city and a bevy of construction interests. Now the bill has come due, and it’s pretty clear PCS expects the city to smile and say not to worry – the citizens of Portland are all too happy to take the loss in support of great art.

It would be interesting to know what if anything hasn’t panned out according to the original plan for the Armory. When the projections were run and assumptions plugged in, was it believed that people would pay a lot more for tickets than they actually will? Did shows cost more than planned? Is attendance below anticipated? To be millions of dollars short, something big must have changed. Where did the shortfall occur? If it was known in advance that these would be the numbers from the outset and that PCS would never be able to pay back the loans – the project never should have been initiated without a public vote.

And if the answer is that yes, Portland citizens’ tax dollars are now the only thing standing in between PCS and an Intiman style vanishing act? Then the public should absolutely have a role in selecting leadership and overseeing the organization.

In the real world, the proper response to “I don’t have your $4 million” is either a) you’re fired or b) I’m sending Vinnie over to get it. And he’s kinda impatient.

Or both.

Meanwhile, expect a deafening silence on this important issue from the local arts “media”.

Where’s Mike Daisey when you need him?

Stay tuned for follow on stories.

If tickets are routinely on sale for half off, something has gone wrong.
If tickets are routinely on sale for half off, something has gone wrong.