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Making 1% cash count: More arts space

Posted: June 24, 2012 - 12:05am

The City & Borough of Juneau Assembly is in the process of considering which among many alluring capital projects might be paid for through the dedication of the 1 percent temporary sales tax revenues. Earlier this month the Assembly Finance Committee heard from a number of groups that pitched proposals with a total cost of $28 million.

When you look at the projects in consideration for use of sales-tax funds, none of them come across as a bad idea. In a perfect world they could all be funded and developed, but the reality is that the Assembly will have to make some hard choices, selecting the most worthy projects to receive scarce dollars. This requires careful consideration by all Juneau residents and their elected leaders.

The Juneau Arts & Humanities Council (JAHC) has done a tremendous job of managing the Juneau Arts & Culture Center (JACC) for the past several years, to the point that the JACC is almost bursting at its seams. With an annual booking rate of over 80%, clearly the JACC is a huge success, and its co-operative management use as an event space in conjunction with Centennial Hall makes it an even more logical place to consider investment of public funds.

I served on the Juneau Performing Arts Center Commission several years ago, and we undertook a lengthy and exhaustive analysis of what the community needed for performing arts space, and what it might cost to build a new facility from the ground up on the site of the JACC. Our final report indicated that a facility with a large primary auditorium and a much smaller “black box” space could be built for about $45 million. Once we were done with our work, we presented our report to the Assembly and it was essentially set aside, presumably given the size of the price tag.

The urgent need for more performing arts space in Juneau still exists, and the JAHC faces this reality with its JACC-PACC proposal, asking the Assembly to allocate $5 million as the cornerstone of an overall budget just under $15 million. This concept differs from the prior iteration in that it would have two mid-size theatre spaces instead of a really big one and a much smaller one, and wouldn’t demolish the existing JACC. The JAHC has done a follow-up survey of potential users and the wider community, and the current plan reflects the fact that more groups can probably put on more shows with two smaller spaces. The price tag of the proposed JACC-PACC is based on average ticket prices of $20 and rental numbers much lower than the JACC currently sees.

I have previously advocated for the use of 1% sales tax moneys to build a crossing from Douglas Island to the mainland north of the existing bridge. While I still strongly support this project, it is not before the Assembly right now and thus can not be considered as a direct competitor to any of the projects currently competing for funding. In future the Capital City will find the way to improve access for all residents by building a second crossing.

The other projects that might be funded this year all have varying degrees of merit. The proposed new Mendenhall Valley Library has been dreamed of and hoped for almost as long as a performing arts center, and the saving in rental costs from the current facility would help pay for this project. The allocation of sales tax funds would match an appropriation in the coming fiscal year’s State capital budget. As a community it is also fair and wise to try to meet the needs of valley residents as well as those downtown.

Juneau International Airport has been significantly improved in the past few years, and the $10 million request currently on the table may not seem equitable when other, less well-attended to facilities are seeking funding. The Sealaska Heritage Institute proposal for the Walter Soboleff Center downtown is truly a wonderful idea, but in all fairness it is the newest of all the proposals before the Assembly, with the least fully planned budget. While it may deserve sales tax funding in future, it’s hard to see this project carrying the day with all the projects competing for the limited amount of funds.

All Juneau residents have multiple reasons to let our elected leaders know how best to spend sales tax funds. We pay these taxes and we are the users of the projects they fund, so we all ought to voice our desires before spending decisions are made in the near future.

• Brown serves as Chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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