The advisory board for the Helena Civic Center is voicing concerns as city officials consider placing the facility under a different department and possibly privatizing certain aspects of its operation.
During a meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12, on the third floor of the City-County Building, the Helena City Commission will consider the first reading of an ordinance that would restructure the Parks and Recreation Department as the new Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department. The new department would oversee the civic center, which is currently under the aegis of the Community Facilities Department.
City officials believe placing the civic center under the new Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department would bring it into a portfolio of similar facilities. Parks and Recreation Director Kristi Ponozzo, who has been in the position since June, said there are similarities between the civic center and the city-run golf course and pool.
"There's some sense to have the civic center underneath Parks and Recreation," Ponozzo said, due to its nature as a center for community gatherings.
Ponozzo said the civic center has been "well-cared for" by the Civic Center Advisory Board, and that the city respects the work that has been done to keep the facility up and running.
"We're going to focus on all sorts of different options," Ponozzo said.
"It's a central community type of venue, so there are a lot of different options," she said, including event hosting and bringing in larger musical or theatrical acts to maximize the building's use.
The 18-member Civic Center Advisory Board, which is appointed by the Helena City Commission, has expressed deep concerns that the change would be damaging to the venerable building both culturally and structurally.
"How shortsighted, to place the Civic Center under the purview of a NEW Director of Parks and Recreation, whose forte is open spaces and parks. What qualifications does this unsuspecting NEW hire bring to the operation of an event venue?," the advisory board wrote in a letter to the Independent Record. "We fear that it’s a deliberate setting up of the Civic Center for a failure that will result in the building’s falling into disrepair. When this happens, we fear that the City Commission will find the repairs too costly, and the building will slide down a slippery slope to oblivion."
Judy Kline, who has been the president of the advisory board for more than 40 years, said the group is even more worried about city discussions related to privatization.
Rebecca Connors, the city's public information officer, said "there's all kinds of different scenarios" when it comes to privatization. Potential options include partnering with an outside business to help bring in shows or working with The Myrna Loy or the Helena Symphony for programming.
The advisory board is worried that privatizing would lead to an increase in costs to use the building, which would result in a decrease in services.
"When this option doesn't work, the slope to oblivion will mean closure of the building," the letter from the board says. "Is this really what the users of the building and the general public want?"
Kline also expressed concern that the civic center's unique character would not be preserved under the changes being considered.
Byron Dike, the civic center manager, said all of the institutional knowledge about the civic center will be retained.
"Those guys are still within the organization," Dike said of the people who care for the building.
According to Ponozzo, "It will be managed like all of our other facilities."
Dike added that because of the civic center's status on the National Historic Register, no major changes can be made to the structure.
"We're not proposing any changes," Ponozzo said.