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Tuesday, June 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Council delays decision on McCaw Hall shortfall

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle City Council yesterday approved a deal with the Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet that sidesteps for two years a decision on who will pick up the tab for fund-raising shortfalls on the city's new $127.8 million performance hall.

Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, paid for with private donations and tax dollars, is set to open this weekend. But the project remains $15 million short of its fund-raising goals, lacking $4 million from private donors and $11 million that had been expected from the state and King County.

Mayor Greg Nickels had favored requiring the opera and ballet to cover any eventual shortfall, perhaps with an added fee on tickets. But the groups resisted.

Last week, Councilwoman Margaret Pageler stepped in to help the arts groups in time for the new hall's opening. She said it was important for the city to follow through on its commitment to a "world-class" performance hall worthy of the renowned local opera and ballet.

Pageler's agreement, approved 9-0 yesterday, delays until 2005 a decision on who will pay for any of the $15 million shortfall that remains at that time.

In the short term, the city has made up for the shortfalls with loans of $27.8 million and $4.8 million. (The loans also cover some funds that had been pledged but not yet received.)

Those loans appeared to conflict with what Seattle voters were told in 1999, when they approved a $72 million levy that included $29 million to replace the 75-year-old Opera House.

The levy ordinance said it was "not the City's intent to consider using the City's debt capacity to cover any shortfalls in non-City funding."

But that's what the city is doing.

Yesterday's agreement passed unanimously with little debate, and council members took turns singing the praises of the new hall.

Councilman Jim Compton noted the massive commitment of private donors to the new hall. Private donors have so far pledged $68 million out of the project's $72 million goal. That includes a $20 million contribution from the four McCaw brothers, founders of McCaw Cellular Communications (now AT&T Wireless), who in return got to name the hall after their mother.

"That to me is a huge gesture in which the private contributions far outweigh the public," Compton said.

Councilman Nick Licata sounded the only discordant note, commenting that while the new hall is indeed world-class, "we've paid far more for it than we ever expected."

But he voted for the agreement anyway, saying it moved the city in the right direction.

The $127.8 million total cost includes $800,000 in additional city money added to bring the building up to the city's "green building" code, which sets environmental friendliness as a chief goal.

That cost is also up from the $110 million put before voters in 1999. Private backers agreed to cover the bulk of the shortfall.

However, the new hall will also cost the city more to operate, requiring an estimated $448,000 a year in city funds, compared with less than $200,000 for the old Opera House.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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