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Past perfomances

Lessons to be learned from a Pocono arts center

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A lot can go wrong with a performing arts complex. When the small resort community of Bushkill, Pa. committed to build the $37 million Mountain Laurel Center, it envisioned regular performances by a major symphony orchestra, increased tourism, and more jobs.

Instead, the Mountain Laurel Center closed in 2003 after just seven performances, canceled the next year’s entire schedule as well, and pushed the local county government to default on $17 million worth of bonds.

Normally, a troubled Pennsylvania civic project would matter little to Missoulians, but the executive director of the Missoula Community Performing Arts Center, Amy Rue, served as the development director for the Mountain Laurel Center until shortly after it opened.

Rue’s involvement with the Mountain Laurel Center drew attention last week when Missoula City Council member Stacy Rye cautioned that the Council’s time and energy should not be spent on a long-shot deal to locate a $60 million arts center on city land in the Riverfront Triangle, especially given Rue’s past association with a similar failed project.

“I guess my interest in [Mountain Laurel] was that it was something that was sold to the community as the best thing that was ever going to happen to them, and it turned out to be a big disaster,” Rye says.

In defense, Rue says her part in the Mountain Laurel project was limited to seeking out private donors to fund the construction, not to sustain the ongoing operation.

“The financial plan was in place long before I was hired,” Rue says, insisting that she had nothing to do with any other aspect of the venture’s budget, particularly the problematic portions.

And problems there were. The executive director of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, Bob Uguccioni, who serves as a non-voting member on the board of the Mountain Laurel Center, says from day one, the center got off on the wrong foot. “It started with some considerable debt…It just didn’t work,” he says.

Before any construction started, Mountain Laurel committed to becoming the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ugoccioni says. But the center was still under construction on the day of the first scheduled performance, and after only seven performances closed for the season. Then the 2004 season was canceled altogether, he says.

“You know, we’re a very rural area, and this particular site is very rural–it’s up a winding dirt road,” Ugoccioni explains. “The point is that this center could never make it or would never make it because of the people who live here. There are just not enough people here to support it.”

An investigation by the Pennsylvania State Auditor Generals Office concluded that the Mountain Laurel Center could never become a sustainable business venture. The report also notes that the arts complex failed to fulfill promises to generate jobs and revenue for the community.

“It’s very clear that these centers do not make money,” Ugoccioni says. “That’s been the challenge–making money from it.”

Much like Missoula’s PAC board, the Mountain Laurel group promised big shows, and plenty of tourists. But the anticipated results never materialized, Ugoccioni says.

“We have a lot of resorts here,” he explains. “Our whole concept would be that [Mountain Laurel] would be packaged with them.”

It’s only recently, after four years and a change of ownership, that the arts complex has stabilized, he says. Private developers bought the Mountain Laurel Center in 2006 and assumed the $23 million of debt the facility owed on bonds used to finance its construction. Nevertheless, the Pennsylvania auditor’s report says taxpayer monies lost in the venture have not, and cannot be recovered, due to “inadequate language” in the sale agreement.

Missoula banker Jim Valeo, president of the PAC board of directors, says Mountain Laurel’s problems, and Rue’s involvement, have had a positive effect on the PAC’s financial planning.

“First of all, in this world we learn from our mistakes. Second of all, this is an entirely different type of project,” Valeo says. “There is no debt on our project.”

According to Valeo, once the group secures a $20 million lead donation, it would pursue another $20 million in funding from grants and small donors (they recently announced that someone has pledged $1 million already). The balance of the $60 million needed would then come only if Missoula County voters approve a $20 million bond.

Of the $60 million total, $10 million will be set aside as an endowment to cover any economic shortfalls. Rue says the Mountain Laurel plan had no safety net in place, which is one mistake the Missoula PAC group hopes to avoid.

“You need to understand very clearly that unlike anything in this town–Playball, the aquatics center, the art museum–nothing was done in this fashion,” Valeo says. He pledges that unlike those projects, the Missoula PAC will not ask for subsidies later.

“If the city sees the positive impact we’ll make and wants to give money to us, we’re not going to not accept it,” he says.

For the moment, whether or not a Missoula performing arts center could sustain itself is incidental. Until Mayor John Engen reports back to Council in March on a possible land deal involving the Riverfront Triangle, where the PAC would be built, Valeo and Rue say they will proceed with their fundraising.

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