Just months after the opening of Mesa’s grandest city project, new City Manager Chris Brady wants to turn its operations over to a private company or nonprofit group.
His idea to reduce the city’s annual $4.7 million operational expense for the downtown Mesa Arts Center could also involve Mesa Community College running the center’s arts classes.
"We’re looking at opportunities to find others who may be able to come in and help operate," Brady told the Tribune Tuesday. "The option needs to be explored."
Brady, who started his third week with the city Tuesday, said he plans to meet with the Mesa City Council in coming weeks to discuss next year’s budget, facing a $37 million shortfall unless a new revenue source is found. The council decided last month to hold a May 16 election to seek a primary property tax — the city’s first in 61 years — and sales tax rate increase from 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent.
"Based upon reading the proposed budget cuts, it’s a good time to have those exploratory discussions" on the arts center, Brady said.
In a list of potential budget cuts generated by former City Manager Mike Hutchinson, the arts center’s performing and visual arts classes would be eliminated unless fees are increased to cover all city operating costs. That idea already failed last year when the council raised class fees, only to reverse that decision after lower-than-expected enrollment.
Mesa Community College President Larry Christiansen said discussions are ongoing about a possible MCC role with the classes, although no commitment has been made. Christiansen said MCC already teaches some classes similar to what’s being offered at the new center.
"If it’s in everyone’s best interest, we’ll put a package together," Christiansen said.
The downtown arts center was approved as part of the 1998 "quality-of-life" sales tax election that raised the city sales tax rate from 1 percent to 1.5 percent. The arts center cost $98 million to build, including $3.7 million in private donations. The center on the southeast corner of Main and Center streets, including four theaters, galleries and classrooms, hosted its inaugural event in September.
MAC operational costs are projected to drop to $4.2 million during the 2006-07 fiscal year because of a drop in one-time expenditures, but then return to about $4.7 million in future years, said Gerry Fathauer, Mesa arts director.
Fathauer said she has not met with Brady about the possible change, but said there’s a reason these types of centers are not being built by the private sector.
"Arts centers with galleries and classrooms and theaters are not things people typically build to make money," Fathauer said.
There has been growing council support to look at ways to reduce the city’s operational costs for the arts center, which is sure to be criticized during the upcoming election campaign as an example of the city spending beyond its means.
And Brady’s plan is in step with Mayor Keno Hawker, who in his annual State of the City address last week, said his vision for Mesa includes an arts center that is "privately operated and has attracted restaurants and nightlife to Main Street."
Some council members are eager to find other groups to run the center.
"You can’t do anything about the fact it’s built, it’s here, so how can we make this operate that doesn’t constitute a continuing drag on the taxpayer?" Councilman Tom Rawles said.
Others appear more cautious.
"I’m willing to look at anything and I don’t think there’s anything that’s off the table," Councilman Mike Whalen said. "Whether I agree with what the specifics are, I don’t know."