Monday, June 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Behind the bright lights of McCaw Hall

Seattle's new performance hall is a stunning, impressive community asset. But the hall's funding plan makes it less than a shining example of public-private partnerships.

When McCaw Hall opens later this week, there will be a $11-to-12 million construction shortfall from public sources. Planners of the refurbished Opera House assumed — always a dangerous word — the state and King County would contribute substantial sums.

So far, the state contribution is $8 million short of the amount anticipated, the county is $3 million shy of its hoped-for participation.

Additional public funds may eventually be secured, but it is foolish to count on more county money. Perhaps, and only perhaps, the state will increase its contribution to the new, improved home of the ballet and opera.

The public-private partnership behind McCaw Hall includes a substantial city contribution and a pledge of $72 million from private donors. The private money goal is more than originally planned — the idea being to improve aesthetic and technical features of a grand refurbishment.

But even the private money is $4 million short of the latest goal.

Partly because of the shortfall in public and private donations, the city backed a $27.8 million loan that allows two years for potential contributors to come forward. That was a wise decision. It made no sense to leave the building unfinished.

McCaw Hall is a stunning upgrade of a facility that at very least needed major seismic improvements. But in the back of everyone's minds during this gala opening week is the fact that the building is built, in part, on the hope of future funds.

Mayor Greg Nickels would cover the gap with an estimated $3 ticket surcharge or building fee at major events. That would be an acceptable way out, because users pay.

But unless additional money comes in soon, this will not be one of our best public-private partnerships, a concept this page supports when done right.

Benaroya Hall appears to have set a better example. It, too, was a blend of funding from public and private sources. City and private donors paid handsome sums, and state and county contributions were pledged before the financing plan was adopted. McCaw Hall assumed contributions without getting similar pledges in writing.

The other key difference, well beyond anyone's control, is the economy. Money available in rosier times is not so easily accessed.

McCaw Hall is an important building in a thriving arts community. But all the glitter and excitement can't obscure a funding formula that came up short.

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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