Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Skepticism Squared

Though I did not hesitate to vote for the new Westbrook middle school in May 2007, I was one of the 36% of Westbrook residents who cast a vote against the new performing arts center that was expected to cost the City $4.1 million dollars over twenty years, including an extra $2 million in interest.

If I remember correctly, the proponents of the auditorium argued in 2007 that the City would be saving money by building the auditorium, because the city's residents would no longer be required to outlay monies for graduations at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Moreover, I seem to recall proponents batting away opponents' concerns that our current auditorium in the high school wasn't used enough by pointing out the new one would be more functional because it would have better technology, most notably air conditioning.

So color me skeptical when these two arguments appeared to shrivel up under the lights of Room 114 at the Westbrook School Committee's November 18 meeting.

To be fair, as school committee member Ed Symbol pointed out in defense of his uncharacteristic vote in favor of a graduation at Merrill Auditorium, the Class of 2010's overwhelming preference for that location (I'd link you to the AJ's November 19 story containing more information about the concerns of the Class of '10, but the hamsters at 840 Main Street have slowed their gait) will not cost the taxpayers of Westbrook any more money than if the graduating students had opted for a graduation at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center, because the money for the Merrill auditorium would not be coming out of the budget.

Nevertheless, I tend to agree with the committee's lone dissenter on this issue, Mary Hall, when she pointed out that it's very likely the residents of Westbrook will be digging into their pockets for a Merrill Auditorium graduation, whether it's via the school budget or through some type of fundraising.

Moreover, school committee chairman Greg Smith's observation that the new auditorium will simply not be big enough for a proper graduation (or as he put it, "you can't put ten pounds of flour in a five-pound sack") causes me to wonder if the Westbrook Performing Arts Center will ever fulfill that plank of the proponents' case for building the auditorium. And while this current incarnation of the school committee chose to withhold additional funds for a Merrill graduation, will that be the case in the future?

My attention was further piqued during a presentation of the manager of the performing arts center, Jamie Grant. After informing the committee that the facility should be open for school-related events in February 2010 and will be ready to host professional events by the fall of 2010, committee member Maria Dorn asked Grant why they couldn't host such events earlier in the year.

Grant gave two reasons, the first being legitimate, and the second, head-scratching. First of all, Grant said, we don't know if we'll have the familiarity with the facility's outstanding technology or the staffing necessary to pull off such an event at an earlier date, and we don't want acquire a bad reputation for slipshod productions. That's fair. The second reason, though, made my mind whirl: We won't be hosting events in the summer, Grant said, because there simply aren't audiences for shows that time of year.

I know a vast majority of scientists expect the temperature of the Earth to rise in the near future, but is an air-conditioning system truly needed for a Maine-based performing arts center that'll evidently be closed during the summer?

- John C.L. Morgan

(Update: You can see see now and later photos of the WPAC at the facility's Facebook page.)


SymPrint said...

I don't disagree with your statements. We removed the line item for Merrill in the last budget cycle. My support for graduation at Merrill rested with the taxpayer dollars not paying ofr the hall rental.

As for the Performing Art Center (PAC), I see your concerns and raise you two more. The PAC was intended to be fully self funding by the second year of operation. The plan presented Wednesday will not get us there. Also, what are we doing for the next nine months with no bookings.

James Tranchemontagne said...

For those of you who do know Jamie Grant, he is a straight shooter who will bring a great theater to Westbrook. I think you are taking his comment out of context. He not saying never in the summer but not now.

If your theater gets a bad name it will be over looked by many. Art is a funky, bitchy world and you have to do it right.
Mr. Grant has the connection in New England and New York to find smaller companies that can then bring their production here.

Anyone who knows theater knows June to August isn't prime time, that is not to say some concerts and other performance wont happen during those time.

What is most unfortunate about sending the graduation to Portland is all the loss of business to our downtown. Gas Stations, restaurants, convenient stores, flower shops and more miss out on the swell of people to the city that day.

You want to rag about more poor spending/decisions from our officials that is fine. I would give Mr. Grant a year before you cast doubts.

Westbrook Diarist said...


This is an argument I actually hope to lose.

Since the debate for funding this auditorium sprouted in the spring of 2007, I've been concerned about the success and usefulness of the sparkling auditorium. The developments at last Wednesday's meeting obviously didn't ease my skepticism.

Nevertheless, if my skepticism is proven to be unfounded, it will be because Westbrook will have benefited from the investment, both financially and culturally.

So here's to hoping my critiques are looked back upon as petty, compared to the auditorium's success. And here's to asking you in the future what drink best complements crow.


Jamie Grant said...

Thank you James for bringing this conversation to my attention.
The Performing Arts Center has every intention of being a success both culturally and financially for the city of Westbrook. The reasons that it will take until late summer/early fall of next year to start hosting professional events are many, and I did not elaborate on most of them during the school committee meeting.

A performing arts season runs parallel to a school calendar, meaning it starts in September and runs through early June. Audience turn-out in the summer is nowhere near as strong, or more importantly reliable, as it is in other months. Most touring productions (musicals, dance, etc.) don't even tour during the summer. If you don't believe me feel free to look at the arts calendar for other performing arts centers. You will find that they are almost all dark for the majority of the summer months. This is not to say that some summer programming is not intended for the future. I think there is a great opportunity for small concerts and comedians and shows of a smaller scale to perform in the summer. I completely agree about the benefits of a fully air-conditioned theater!

Until we have established a firm and loyal following of audience members it is going to be hard to assure potential presenters of shows that we can guarantee them an audience in the summer. What I don't want to happen in the first year is for the reputation of this multi-million dollar, state of the art theater to be anything less than outstanding.

On a personal note, I welcome any and all exchanges of ideas regarding the venue and would be happy to debate them in this forum. I think the citizens of this town overwhelmingly are in support of this performing arts center and while it is opening in a difficult financial climate it still has all the pieces in place to be a success.

Jamie Grant
Manager- Westbrook Performing Arts Center

p.s. As for the graduation it should be noted that the graduating students are overwhelmingly in favor of Merrill Aud. Personally, I think graduations should be held outdoors on a beautiful June day. I am not sure why they don't do it on the football field and have the Performing Arts Center as a back-up in case of rain.

James Tranchemontagne said...

I be more worried that the school id finished on time and the city can coordinate the moving on everything during winter break.

I still don't understand why they didn't plan on doing this during the summer. I have a feeling it going to be a big headache for a lot of people, mostly the tax payers.

This theater I'm sure will generate revenue the question is who gets its, the school system or city?

SymPrint said...

Contrary to what many believe I like the new manager of the WPAC. My fear is that his charge of spinning a newly opened center into a profitable enterprise in a short period is going to be a sturdy assignment.

As for where the money goes……When the WPAC turns a “profit” the funds will be used exclusively for the operations at the center. The existing business plan is incredibly precise about expectations on revenues and expenditures over the next five years.

Anonymous said...

Just a few comments...I don't think businesses in Westbrook will be affected negatively by the graduation ceremony happening at Merrill. I think folks will still gas up at Holly's and the flowers for the prom will still be bought at Harmon and Barton's. Maybe the local eateries will market something for kids going to the prom or family graduation dinners. I hardly think the venue will pull away from local businesses. Especially now that you have some time to cater to this crowd if you want them. Secondly, some of the taxpayers, namely the parents of the almost 200 graduates, clearly want a space that will accomodate their family size without putting a restriction of 3-4 tickets on them. Afterall, these families have been supporting the communities and schools through fundraising, volunteering and sweating it out during testing, finals and events for 12 years.
Lastly, I really hope that we draw other groups - maybe churches looking for space, etc to the PAC. While I understand the need to market the space correctly and I have faith in Mr. Grant's ability to manage this, I have to admit, I too am a little uneasy about the vacant time it will sit....
And one last lastly, the middle school move has been well thought out and planned out. I think its the least of our worries. It's also a wonderful time to move because the students who have been going to a building with less than ideal conditions or being taught out of the trailers for so long, - who came to WJHS their sixth grade year when construction just began, will be able to finish their 8th grade year in a new building. It's a nice gesture to them.
Happy Thanksgiving all!