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Helena City Commission hears civic center recommendation

Shenandoah (copy)

Country music band Shenandoah performs at the Helena Civic Center in support of the Lewis and Clark DUI Task Force in this 2019 file photo.

During a Helena City Commission meeting Wednesday, the Helena Civic Center Steering Committee delivered its recommendations on the future of the 100-year-old venue. 

On March 25, the committee voted 7-2 to recommend that the Helena City Commission "form an advisory board to be focused as a non-profit board of directors and that the non-profit would be responsible for the management of the civic center with a lease agreement with the City of Helena."

The recommendation from the volunteer committee comes after more than a year of meetings, research and discussions on the matter of establishing a new advisory board.

"In the end, after looking at all of the research Allan (R. Scott) and Andrea (Optiz) in particular did, looking at other models of successful nonprofit management of city-owned venues all across the country ... we reached the conclusion that partnering with a local, homegrown nonprofit entity to operate and manage the civic center captures the best aspects of all the scenarios we studied," Committee Chairwoman Niki Zupanic said during Wednesday's meeting.

The committee members cited numerous studies, including a 2017 study of the Helena Civic Center paid for by the city and a Goucher College study also from 2017 on sustainable city-owned cultural facilities.

Scott, who is the music director of the Helena Symphony Orchestra and a member of the committee, said they reviewed hundreds of documents and case studies. "This is not cherry-picked research," he said.

One of the main issues at hand is the facility's current level of financial dependence on city taxpayer subsidies.

In 2017, the civic center required subsidies to the tune of $16 per capita. More recently that figure has fallen to about $10.50 per capita.

The committee's research claims city-owned halls run by non-governmental entities in other municipalities costs roughly $4 to $6 per capita.

Billings' Alberta Bair Theater, which is managed by a separate nonprofit known as the Alberta Bair Theater Corporation, operates with a net profit of more than $200,000 a year.

Scott said one of the benefits to such a model is an enhanced ability to raise funds. Nearly a quarter of the Alberta Bair Theater's annual revenue comes from outside contributions.

The 2017 local study on the Helena Civic Center noted that the facility "has been operating as a passive rental facility ... and is used less than one-third of the available dates."

Scott asserted that by putting such aspects of operation like programming in the hands of a nonprofit board of directors better versed in performing arts, more opportunities would open up for diverse programming.

Over the course of 2019, the civic center went unused 124 days. There are also stretches during the height of summer that the facility is uninhabitable due to the lack of air conditioning.

Scott said nonprofit fundraising efforts could solve that problem as well.

There was concern among some city leaders and staff that the scope of the recommendation may stray beyond the committee's task.

City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk urged the commissioners to allow her time to consult with staff and create a recommendation of her own before they fully considered the steering committee's recommendation.

"You hired me to run the operations. We hire the staff to run the operations," Harlow-Schalk said. "We don't have advisory committees involved in our operations. ... The recommendation is around operations and maintenance, and I remember the resolution to say advisory boards."

In an email sent to the mayor and commissioners ahead of the meeting, Helena Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Director Kristi Ponozzo offered a "slight alteration" to the committee's recommendation that would maintain city control over operations and maintenance.

The committee's presenters said the broad recommendation needed to consider the entire operation.

"Really what we had to do prior to looking at what the board looks like, we really had to determine what the board was going to do," Opitz, a committee member and executive director of the Helena Tourism Alliance, said. "In order to determine what the board was going to do, we must determine what the structure of the civic center will look like."

City Commissioner Sean Logan was not sold on the proposal.

"I'd like the record to show I don't support the recommendation and look forward to having the opportunity to explain why at a future meeting," Logan said.

Some of the next steps in the process should the City Commission elect to proceed with the committee's recommendation would include developing a mission statement for the potential nonprofit and other specifics regarding that organization. Work on forming the legal structure of the 501(c)3 would also need to be completed. Zupanic offered the services of the committee for the former.

"I would offer up that one way to approach it would be for this committee to stay on for another six months and to do that work and to come back to this commission with some more information about the beginnings of a transition plan," Zupanic said.

Following the two-hour discussion, the city manager was tasked with meeting with her staff to further explore the committee's recommendation and any others staff might have.

The item will be scheduled for formal decision at a yet-to-be-determined City Commission meeting, according to Harlow-Schalk.

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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