By Kevin Hogencamp
The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s conductor says he’d love to contribute to a community study on how to best utilize the Albany Civic Center and Municipal Auditorium.
After all, the symphony is one of the facilities’ most frequent tenants and the Municipal Auditorium was refurbished as the symphony’s home facility, says maestro Claire Fox Hillard.
Alicia Croxton, who directs ACT Up Junior Theater, says that after having harrowing experiences renting the auditorium, she’s also got a thing or to say.
So do officials with Albany State University, the Miss Albany Pageant, Swamp Gravy and area high schools, churches and community groups who have had run-ins with the city over rental fees and other issues since City Manager Alfred Lott hired John Mazzola to direct the facilities in 2006.
But the City of Albany decided otherwise and instead violated state law by keeping the public away from a citizens task force committee’s meetings.
The committee was facilitated by Assistant City Manager Wes Smith, who declined comment for this report and did not immediately comply with state law by allowing access to his file and e-mails to and from committee members. Smith was assisted by Mazzola, who left his post under fire in April to take a similar position in Kansas. Committee members were Phil Cannon, attorney; Catherine Glover, the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce present; Ann Mitchell of Wingate & Mitchell Attorneys; Chuck Roberts of John Ross Jewelers; Miloy Schwartz, marketing consultant; and Mari Wright, American Red Cross executive director. House of Jazz owner William Nobile served on the committee until his death in March.
Mayor Willie Adams and city commissioners selected the committee members after being requested to do so by Smith and Lott in December.
State law requires that like the elective bodies that appoint them, all local government citizens committees publicize its meetings, publish agendas, take minutes, and otherwise invite public participation. There’s no differentiation in the law between official and unofficial committees, although commissioners and committee members say that Adams and commissioners selected this particular task force.
Georgia law states: “(A) ‘meeting’ means the gathering of a quorum of the members of the governing body of an agency or of any committee of its members created by such governing body, whether standing or special … Except as otherwise provided by law, all meetings as defined in subsection (a) of this Code section shall be open to the public.”
Croxton says she would have loved to tell the committee about her experiences, which include cost-prohibitive rental fees, being double-charged for auditorium workers, city employees sleeping on the job, and being forced to pay for services that her students or volunteers could perform.
“During our show, the operations manager for both venues and his assistant went to sleep in the lobby,” Croxton said. “I approached (a supervisor” about it and he informed me that they had been working overtime and were tired.
“Also, during the show, a deckhand – who I was required to pay $25 per hour, refused to turn off his cell phone and it kept going off. Remember, we have to hire him to close the curtain as if theater people couldn’t do that by themselves. My 7-year-old knows how to close the drape. My middle-schoolers know how to work the fly system.
Croxton and Hillard said they did not know about the task force’s meeting until after its report was issued last week.
“We (the Symphony) are of course extremely interested as one of the primary tenants of the Municipal Auditorium,” Hillard said. “We desire a positive relationship with the auditorium & City of Albany. When the Municipal Auditorium was restored it was done with the express intent of being the ‘home of the Albany Symphony.’”
Like Smith, Lott refused to answer the Albany Journal’s questions or provide the city’s file or e-mails, which are public records. As with conducting illegal meetings, withholding public records is a misdemeanor crime.
Adams and the City Commission also were asked to comment on their staff violating state law. Only Commissioner Roger Marietta responded, saying of the task force’s work, “I asked Wes about it and he agrees that maybe it should have been opened up to the public.”
When asked, Marietta declined to say whether he would seek to reprimand Lott or otherwise follow up on the staff’s state law violations.
Following is the task force’s findings and recommendations:
The key finding of the task force is that the perception and public depiction of the two facilities are grossly negative. A perception improvement campaign is needed. Both venues are assets to the community and the downtown revitalization process. The Auditorium is better suited to smaller local events and steps should be taken to make the facility more easily and less expensively available. The Civic Center was built for a different entertainment market than exists today, and the trade area population and demographics are challenged to support larger events. The first Panthers’ game illustrates, though, that people will come, given a good entertainment option and quality production.
The other major finding from the task force is that usage trends are actually up for 2009. Both the number of people coming through the turn styles and the number of events were up. Further, the economic impact of the facilities in 2009, estimated at $8,479,498, clearly provides an argument that the annual approximate $1.2 million city operating cost into the facilities has value. We should stop looking at this annual cost as a “subsidy” and instead see it as the investment in community that it really is. Also, it is impossible to provide a value figure to the facilities’ contribution to the quality of life in Albany. Whether it be a play for youth, the Albany Symphony, Steve Harvey, etc., our community is fortunate to have these choices that smaller communities do not have. In fact, a lot of the economic impact of the two facilities comes from the pockets of out-of-town visitors that otherwise would not spend in our economy.
Regarding the Civic Center arena, the general findings were that the arena is attracting regular users and the rate structures appear reasonable.
The committee proposes two possible Municipal Auditorium pilot programs for consideration. The first envisions a partnership with the Albany Area Arts Council to make the Municipal Auditorium more accessible to the general public, and to tell the Auditorium’s story as a historic treasure in Albany. The idea is to ask the Arts Council to develop a historical chronicle of the facility for use in a facility visitation program. Initially, the Council would have one tour day a month where they could have volunteer “historians” give scheduled tours of the facility and tell its story. Citizens could learn about what a magnificent performing arts facility Albany has now, and learn its rich history.
The second auditorium pilot program for consideration would be a competitive usage program to make the Auditorium available for local non-profit and community groups to use the facility at a reduced rate. Program details would have to be developed, but conceptually, a periodic application process would be held to allow groups to propose a one day show at the Auditorium for the reduced flat rate of $1,000. The committee felt that three such shows per six months would be reasonable. Since the facility averages about $4,000 for a single show production, this would add a city general fund investment of approximately $18,000 to the existing annual investment of approximately $57,000 now budgeted. This program would be for one time users and not for local regular non-profit users such as the symphony. Also, there would have to be a (suggested) 45 day “bump” clause if a for-profit show wanted to buy a date scheduled for one of these special shows.
It is recommended that a reconsideration of the Civic Center meeting room rental rates be done as they appear too high, especially compared to the rates charged for these areas before renovation. Clearly they should be higher than pre-renovation rates, but the increase was significant and rentals now are minimal at best. Club lunch business would be a desirable target for meeting room use.
There is one specific pilot recommendation for the Civic Center arena. There used to be two annual high school basketball tournaments each year in the arena. One was a kick off event around Thanksgiving and the other was a Christmas tournament. These events were well attended due to the quality and popularity of SW Georgia basketball. Also, many local rivalry games now draw crowds far larger than they can serve in school gyms. It is proposed that the City work with the Board of Education to re-create the Thanksgiving tournament as a pilot and see if it draws well. It is estimated that such a tournament would cost the Civic Center up to $10,000 for direct expenses above base costs (rent) for the facility paid by the Board of Education. Also, some shared ticket revenue agreement with the BofE would likely be needed. The committee did not recommend the Christmas tournament as an initial pilot, though it sees real opportunity in that option, as well.”