Drama builds over art hall bill

SEATTLE – With Seattle awash in dot-com and aerospace money a few years ago, the city built an airy, $172 million performance hall for the Seattle Opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. But high culture has since become a low priority at City Hall and beyond.

Because of the recent downturn in the Northwest economy, the politicians want the opera and the ballet to shoulder more of the hall’s leftover construction costs – a move the two arts organizations fear could ruin them.

The dispute has touched off something of a class debate over whether taxpayers should be subsidizing the tuxedo-and-jewels set.

At issue is the glass-fronted McCaw Hall, the newest addition to Seattle Center, a 76-acre complex that includes the Space Needle and the NBA Seattle SuperSonics’ KeyArena.

City voters approved $38 million for the hall in 1999. Private donors – led by cellphone magnate Craig McCaw – kicked in $72 million. Optimistic planners expected King County and the state to contribute, too.

But things changed before the hall even opened its doors a year and a half ago: The dot-coms went bust. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks crippled the region’s aerospace industry, anchored by Boeing Co. And the ranks of the unemployed swelled.

Since then, the state and the county have provided only about $5.5 million of the $17 million that the opera and the ballet had hoped for to help cover long-term construction costs.

And the city, which has been paying most of the interest on the building up to now, has decided to cover only half those costs for the next two years. After that, Mayor Greg Nickels wants to make the opera and the ballet responsible for all interest and principal, which total $900,000 a year.

The mayor has suggested the arts organizations handle the added expenses by raising ticket prices or increasing the rent for users of the hall.

But in a recent eight-page news release, the ballet and the opera warned that those suggestions threaten their long-term future. They said raising ticket prices would keep the less-affluent out, and the higher expenses will require them to cut performances, jobs or community programs.

A Seattle Times editorial ridiculed the opera-ballet news release as an “ill-advised hissy fit.” And the squabble prompted cranky letters to the editor from citizens who consider opera and ballet pastimes of the rich.

“While the venue is a public building, it is dishonest to suggest that it serves anything other than a mostly private purpose for its wealthy patrons,” David Keenan of Seattle wrote in a letter published Nov. 15. “Considering the $25 million budget gap our municipality is facing, I suspect that the city’s opera patrons could, and should, pay an extra dollar or two the next time they attend ‘Das Rheingold.’”

Virginia Anderson, Seattle Center’s director, responded to such complaints by noting that more than 90,000 people – many of them children – attend the ballet’s annual holiday performances of “Nutcracker.”

“One of the things I feel worst about is perpetuation of the stereotype of the arts as elitist,” she said.

Mayoral spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel said the city has gone above and beyond its initial commitment to the hall and cannot afford to do more. She said it is time for the arts groups to shoulder the burden – something they knew was coming two years ago.

“The citizens of Seattle voted to tax themselves to contribute $38 million. … In addition, we’ve paid two years of their debt service,” she said. “I would say that’s a pretty big commitment.”

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