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Officials are at a crossroads with the use of the city’s best known downtown feature, The Commons.
Managing the facility is a balancing act between maximizing revenue to help ease the burden on taxpayers and providing the public with access to the community space for which it pays about $1.2 million a year, city officials said.
Mayor Kristen Brown is proposing to put a thumb on the scale on the side of public access, giving residents more opportunities to enjoy free community events in their building and to admire the clockwork movements of the “Chaos I” sculpture.
That is a departure from the previous administration and the direction of The Commons Board, which leaned toward maximizing revenues by restricting free access.
The city’s $18 million downtown centerpiece, at Third and Washington streets, opened in 2011. It is governed and operated by a web of government bodies and public organizations, but a seven-member Commons Board makes operational decisions regarding the facility.
Two legacy members served on the original Commons Board and represent the interests of donors who made the buildings possible. Additionally, two members are appointed by the City Council, and three members are appointed by the mayor through the Board of Public Works and Safety.
Under the city ordinance that charters The Commons Board, it is given the mission to balance three competing interests:
Inclusion: A variety of diverse events, which would appeal to different cultures and tastes, to ensure all members of the community feel welcome and encouraged to use The Commons.
Activity: Frequent events so The Commons is alive, active and well-used.
Revenue: Maximize revenue to the extent possible, without sacrificing the above two goals.
In August, Brown met with The Commons Board to outline a plan to make the building more accessible to the public. By her estimate, the only portions of the building the public can use without restrictions are the playground and the area in front of the playground-area restaurants — about 18 percent of the building’s 55,000 square feet.
According to a tally of scheduled use of The Commons this year, there have been 29 free public events scheduled for the various public spaces in the The Commons and 20 ticketed events the public could attend. However, there were 89 private events scheduled at The Commons. In February, June and August, there was only one free public event each month, and in July there were no free or ticketed events the public could attend, according to the schedule.
But taxpayers are paying about $1.2 million of the $1.4 million annual costs it takes to operate the building and to pay off the bonds, Brown said. For that money, they should be able to have access to more of the building, she said.
“They reliably have access to less than 20 percent of the space, but they are footing
80 percent of the bill, annually.”
Brown is suggesting that The Commons stop renting the Miller-Tangeman Lobby, where the Chaos I sculpture stands.
She wants The Commons Board to set aside a day a month, likely a Saturday, for free events at The Commons so the public can enjoy the space. She estimated that the loss of the space rentals would cost about $12,000, an amount she added to next year’s proposed budget as part of the city’s annual support of The Commons from economic development income tax revenue.
Brown’s plan is a departure from the previous direction of The Commons Board, which sought higher revenues from the space rentals.
As mayor, Fred Armstrong had a philosophy of making everyone who wanted to use the spaces pay for the privilege, Commons Board President Sherry Stark said.
For example, the Columbus Area Arts Council hosts the First Fridays for Families events monthly in the winter and fall. But while the events are free to the public, the Arts Council pays The Commons for the use of the space.
“The dictate had come down from Mayor Armstrong (that) everybody is going to pay to use The Commons building,” Stark said. “Nobody gets a free pass on using the space. Every use of the building had a rental. So that is how we were structuring things.”
Stark said The Commons Board is open to exploring the mayor’s suggestions and change in focus. She said the board is still determining the best way to meet its three competing goals.
“We are developing policies, making decisions as we live with this wonderful new building and see how we can best use it and best serve our community,” Stark said. “I view the Commons Board’s principal role is to be the voice of the community and to be good stewards of this resource, this treasure.
“The Commons Board is very supportive of any ideas or thoughts on how we can draw people in and make this a place that the whole community uses.”
Tracy Souza, a Commons Board member and president of Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, said the mayor’s proposal means a shift in the board’s priorities.
“We are starting to see a difference of opinion regarding the importance of revenue generation for The Commons and how you generate that revenue,” Souza said.
Initially, the board thought that it was important to have a business plan and to offset the public subsidy of The Commons, she said.
“We talked about how do you balance the interests of revenue generation and yet have a facility that welcomes all people for free activities and public events?” Souza said. “How do you balance between public events and private events?
“Keeping that balance has been really important to us. I think all of us agree on The Commons Board, and I am not going to speak for everybody, is that is what the work is: To find the right balance. I think we all would put the balancing point in slightly different places.”
Souza said the efforts have been successful, and the new Commons has raised many times the space-rental income than the old Commons ever did.
Even with efforts to maximize space-rental revenue, The Commons was nowhere close to being self-sufficient, but it never was meant to do so, Brown and Commons Board members agreed.
Rental of public spaces makes up about 10 percent of the building’s revenue — about $140,765 in income last year. That amount would almost cover what is spent annually on electricity for the building.
“In theory, any increment of increase in revenue would decrease the subsidization, but you are never going to have that subsidization go away,” said Jeff Logston, the city’s director of finance and administration. “You may shave a little bit off at best, but it doesn’t have the capacity for that (much) revenue.”
Reconsidering rental fees
Brown said she would like to increase revenue for public events by increasing the cost of renting the space for private and for-profit organizations. She believes the price is artificially low and competes with private companies renting space for events. She also suggested that some local organizations could be coaxed into having their free public events at The Commons and that the facility could choose not to charge for those.
Ryan Brand, City Council president and a Commons Board member, said he doesn’t think the price should be on the extreme high-end of the rental spectrum but should be fair.
“We don’t want to do something that hurts the private sector,” Brand said. “We don’t want to have a facility that is below what the market can charge.”
However, as a City Council member, Brand said he is always in favor of any of the publicly subsidized city facilities becoming more self-sustaining.
Souza said that the price of the rental spaces cannot be so high that it dims the use of the space because of the cost.
George Dutro, a Commons Board member and former City Council member, said during an August meeting that the board was worried in the early days that it wouldn’t be able to fill the space regularly and set prices to encourage use. The Commons has different rates for individuals and private businesses from those for nonprofit organizations. He said he was concerned that it would put the staff in a slippery position in having to determine who gets what rate if that structure were altered to make some events free.
The city parks department manages the public spaces for The Commons Board through the building staff, made up of parks department employees. The first parks department Commons manager, Lisa Westenberger, resigned last month to take a job in Indianapolis, and the parks department has been interviewing candidates to replace her.
As part of the new job description, The Commons manager will be tasked with programming the mayor’s suggested free events.
Brown said she sees her suggested events being separate from the free public events put on by the Arts Council. The mayor said she envisions events that are more participatory, such as a barbecue cookoff or a Halloween event with ghost-story telling.
Stark said The Commons Board is wrestling with how to provide the free programming while being fiscally responsible.
“Even free programming comes with a cost for the talent, the person who is performing,” Stark said. “It is a free activity, but you have a sound system. Who is paying for that?
“One of the thoughts was that we can find sponsors, and that can happen. But we are sensitive that all of the not-for-profits in town, particularly the Arts Council, are always looking for sponsors for events.
“We want to be thoughtful and careful whether or not we are stealing sponsor dollars from other agencies, other activities or other organizations.”
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