The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

Cary Brunswick

January 16, 2010

Foothills must work to secure a new foothold

With the community reeling from the personnel and financial crises at the Foothills Performing Arts Center, it is past time that the board of directors calls a public meeting to explain what has or has not been going on at the center.

There are millions of dollars in taxpayer money and hundreds of thousands more in local donations invested in the Market Street center. The board owes an explanation to the community concerning the recent firings of the executive director and four other employees.

Not only that. Area residents deserve a detailed accounting of the center’s finances and what happened to the millions it had on hand at the start of last year.

Given their investments, the city, state and federal governments also may want to know what happened to what once was a dream and then a vision by Peter Macris and few other performing arts enthusiasts in the area.

A decade ago, when Macris was ready to translate his dream into the reality of a performing arts center in Oneonta, he said, “We have the makings here of being a center for the performing arts.

“We hope to be a part of a resurgence and development of the performing arts in this area that will enhance tourism.” Many people, of course, were skeptical that such an incarnation, with a price tag of tens of millions of dollars, could actually occur.

Others thought the concept redundant because of the historic Oneonta Theatre, which could be repaired and restored with enough money.

But, somehow, the tireless Macris got the right people behind him and successfully lobbied area lawmakers for grant money. Millions.

The city of Oneonta, through Otsego County, got $600,000 to raze the old Market Street feed mill and then sold the land to Foothills for $10. And the city cut a deal with Foothills for payments in lieu of taxes that gave city coffers, after payouts the first few years, a share of the center’s gross receipts for 15 years.

Lawmakers such as state Sen. James Seward, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, Sen. Charles Schumer and former Sen. Hillary Clinton came up with most of the money to bolster fundraising and get construction started and completed for the first phase.

At the end of 2008, Foothills had more than $2 million on hand. Construction was begun on the 600-seat theater and a new executive director was hired for $70,000 a year.

And then the board seemed to lose touch.

Fundraising lapsed, there were questionable decisions about the design of the new theater, and the new director announced plans for more professional performances, apparently without the board’s intent for such an agenda.

The trouble is that nobody seems to know what the board’s intent was. The director hired three or four employees to help her push ahead with a rigorous performance schedule, and it was nearly three months later before the board learned of the hiring blitz.

Do board members ever stop by the center?

I was there only once during the last quarter of 2009 and I noticed extra people working, though I didn’t realize they were clandestine.

So, learning recently of the hirings and realizing their precarious financial situation, board members cleaned house by firing the director and the new employees.

Well, at least those workers have been making an attempt to explain to the community what has been going on during the past six months. They have had both media and public meetings to both save their reputations and put the onus on a board they insist has been mismanaging all that grant money.

There doesn’t appear to be proof of mismanagement as much as neglect, though regarding children, and Foothills is indeed a child, there isn’t much difference between abuse and neglect.

That’s why the board needs to come forward now, publicly explain what happened and make a sincere attempt to restore some of the community’s confidence in its ability to manage a performing arts center.

And that ``ability to manage’’ ought to mean revamping the board itself, or certainly some of its leadership, and refocusing the Foothills vision back to fundraising and more-realistic expectations about what the center can be and do in the midst of recession.

Certainly, government money is not going to be as plentiful in the coming few years. Maybe the center should become more a civic or convention center, at least for a while, rather than one mainly for the performing arts, as some have suggested.

Oneonta is rich in and surrounded by the arts and is a natural location to be a hub for a region abounding in creative media. Foothills will continue to be a major part of that hub, especially after we get past these ruts in the road.

CARY BRUNSWICK, a former managing editor at The Daily Star, is the editor of oneontatoday.com and can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.

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