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Thursday, November 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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City, arts groups at odds over McCaw Hall debt

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle City Council yesterday voted to take on $682,800 in debt for the new McCaw Hall, which the Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet had pledged to pay.

At the same time, the opera and ballet sent out a news release blasting Mayor Greg Nickels because he had proposed the arts groups pay the debt through ticket surcharges. The release said the mayor's proposal would saddle the groups with a "devastating expense." It also accused Nickels of engaging in a "pattern of passing responsibility of a public facility to the private sector."

A spokeswoman for Nickels said she was puzzled by the six-page statement. An Oct. 30, 2002, letter from Speight Jenkins, the opera's general director, and Kent Stowell, the ballet's artistic director, said the two organizations agreed to pick up the tab for a potential $10 million shortfall in the McCaw Hall construction cost if the state did not come through with the money.

A Nov. 25, 2002, City Council resolution also stated that the "written assurances" from Jenkins and Stowell amounted to an agreement "stipulating that the financing of any ultimate shortfall in capital funding for McCaw Hall" would come from the ballet and opera.

As for the 2002 letter pledging to cover a shortfall, Kelly Tweeddale, the opera's administrative director, said it was written under pressure from Nickels who threatened to shut down construction of the project. "We felt we had no other choice," Tweeddale said.

Marianne Bichsel, Nickels' spokeswoman, said such allegations were not true and contended that helping McCaw Hall is a top priority for the mayor.

"We have no idea where this tantrum is coming from. This is filled with inaccuracies," Bichsel said. The crux of the dispute is a gap that remains in the financing of the $127.8 million city-owned McCaw Hall. Private donors paid $72 million, the city paid $38.8 million, the county $1.95 million and the state $3.5 million for the performance center. Contributions from the cash-strapped county and state fell $11.4 million short of what city officials expected.

Last year, the city stepped in to provide more help in the way of interim financing. But those funds will be exhausted next year and Nickels' 2005 budget assumes the opera and ballet will pay for outstanding debt.

The debt payments start at $456,000 next year and increase to $910,000 in 2006. Nickels recommended the opera and ballet add a surcharge of $1.50 to $2 per ticket to cover the cost.

The opera and ballet balked.

Opera tickets cost $42 to $109, Tweeddale said. Tacking on a dollar or two "would make a huge difference in whether people would buy them or not," Tweeddale said.

She also said adding a surcharge was impractical as the opera has already sold many tickets for its 2005 performances. Turning to private donors was not an option, she added, "because they've already paid $72 million for a city-owned building."

Meanwhile, the City Council voted unanimously yesterday to tap the city's General Fund — which faces a $25 million gap next year between anticipated revenues and the cost of maintaining services — for $682,800 over the next two years to split the debt payments with the arts groups.

"We have a resolution and letter from them agreeing to pick up any difference. I think it's an unfortunate circumstance we're in, and we're stepping forward to help resolve that," said Council Budget Chairman Richard McIver.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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