If we build an arts center, who will pay? | Matthew Jarvis

Pictured: McIntyre Hall in Mount Vernon is being used as one example for a future performing arts and conference center in Federal Way. - Courtesy photo
Pictured: McIntyre Hall in Mount Vernon is being used as one example for a future performing arts and conference center in Federal Way.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

On Feb. 11, I joined dozens of interested citizens in attending a special meeting of the Federal Way City Council to discuss building a performing arts and conference center (PACC) on the old Toys R Us site.

As I watched slides with beautiful renditions of possible PACC designs, I found myself thinking that maybe, just maybe, a PACC might be the very thing that could revitalize Federal Way’s downtown.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the exceptional team of designers, architects and builders the city assembled - a team who is willing to personally guarantee against cost overruns. Such a guarantee could have saved the city millions on the Community Center and SCORE jail.

My excitement faded, however, when I saw that the city has not yet figured out how to pay for construction, nor is there a viable operating plan.

Furthermore, the city gave no indication on how this project will stimulate downtown redevelopment, nor could they explain how it fits into a comprehensive economic development plan.

While a PACC has great potential, it could easily become yet another white elephant for our city.

Let’s start with the money. Using the city’s own middle of the road numbers (which are optimistic), citizens of Federal Way will need to pay some $20 million to build a PACC. In rough numbers, this is equal to $700 per Federal Way household. If financed solely with property taxes, it would cost the average homeowner $60 annually for 20 years. This is about equal to what the average household is currently paying annually to keep the Community Center open and is only one-third the annual cost of the recently approved high school levy.

One can only hope that the city will be unable to sneak this into the budget and will instead be required to put this up for a public vote.

Construction costs aside, as Mayor Skip Priest has often said, getting it built is the easy part.

Once built, who will pay to keep the doors open? The city and her consultants project that the PACC will require an annual taxpayer subsidy of approximately $200,000.

Given the difficultly of accurately projecting operating costs, I did my own analysis of the numbers. In my professional opinion, the PACC losses/taxpayer subsidy in the first five years will be at least double what the city has projected.

So whose numbers should we trust? I’m willing to bet any PACC supporter, city employee or elected official $10,000 that my numbers are more realistic than the city’s. If anyone’s interested in taking this bet, give me a call and we can work out details.

Regardless of whose number you believe, before proceeding, PACC supporters need to find a way to pay for constructions costs, projected losses, and any cost overruns.

While I agree that a PACC deserves the same (or better) funding than our local athletic facilities (e.g. Celebration Park), the reality is there aren’t any additional funds available.

The approach used in the past of robbing the budgets for police and roads cannot continue. Since 2010, the council has already cut 20 positions from the police department and $1.5 million from the roads budget.

If you ignore the funding issues, and the lost tax revenues, and the lack of a comprehensive plan, building a PACC may be one of the best things to happen to Federal Way. As such, I thank the PACC supporters for their diligent efforts to make Federal Way a better place.

In my next column, I’ll present my plan to pay for a PACC as part of a comprehensive plan. Until then, I welcome your thoughts on this topic. For those of you already writing your hate mail, please remember that over the past 10 years, my family has supported almost every arts group in Federal Way, collectively to the tune of many thousands of dollars.

In other words, I am not “anti-arts.” I just don’t want to see another white elephant that further erodes safety and infrastructure in Federal Way.


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