Editor’s Note: This is the final story in the Mirror’s three-part investigation into how local artist groups are faring at the now two-year-old Federal Way Performing Arts and Event Center.
The ripple of optimism when the new Federal Way Performing Arts and Event Center was built also lured the Tacoma Opera to Federal Way.
Noel Koran, general director of the opera, said Tacoma City Ballet executive director Erin Ceragioli was very impressed following the ballet’s first production, so Koran decided to contact the PAEC as well.
He worked with the PAEC’s former executive director, Theresa Yvonne, who was “very willing to help us out with some of the marketing aspects since we don’t have marketing connections in Federal Way. When working with Theresa, she was very excited about having us come and we were told Federal Way really wanted an opera company as part of its roster [at the PAEC].”
And Koran was excited too, because the PAEC has a “wonderful stage with a pit, which is very rare anymore and is very necessary for an opera.”
He was ecstatic about performing in Federal Way and becoming a regular part of the facility.
However, Koran’s enthusiasm for the PAEC soon came to an operatic grand pause.
“The PAEC in Federal Way is an incredible facility with amazing potential for the enhancement of culture in the South Sound that is not being used or managed well,” Koran said in retrospect. “It’s extremely sad.”
Yvonne suddenly left her position before they had a contract in place.
“Then the city took over and we continued discussions and it kept going and going and going,” Koran said.
He said the city’s transition from Yvonne’s departure to the hiring of Spectra “was handled very poorly. The communication was disastrous.”
And once Spectra came on board, Koran said there was no communication between Spectra and the opera “and it was a nightmare for us to try and pull this off.”
He met with the mayor and also with Hoffman, both of which were “non-satisfactory” meetings, he said.
Spectra finalized a contract with the opera just before their production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the PAEC in November 2017. They performed their tragic masterpiece — to a tragically and “miserable” small audience, Koran said. While the performance typically draws upwards of 600 people, the Federal Way performance only filled 130 seats in the 716-seat facility.
“There was no marketing and no communication between the box office and personnel,” he said, noting it created a difficult situation for them so they decided not to sign a contract for their spring production at the PAEC. “We eventually pulled the plug on it and said I can’t take a risk on this.”
Autumn Gressett, the community relations liaison and contract administrator for the city, stated, “It is unfortunate to hear that Noel feels as if the Performing Arts and Event Center and the City of Federal Way have been unenthusiastic about building a relationship with the Tacoma Opera.”
She said the city’s goal for user groups is to “help elevate their experience and provide a platform in which their organization can grow.”
The city is willing to be flexible with groups and have open dialogue about how they can work together, such as working with Tacoma Opera on the contract until very close to their performance date, she said.
“PAEC policy is that if a user group cancels or removes dates within 30 days, they would be charged for those,” Gressett said. “However, the PAEC worked with Tacoma Opera to modify and adjust at the last minute, which resulted in contracts not being able to be finalized until very close to their performance.”
Gressett said she, along with Mayor Jim Ferrell and Spectra management, met with additional members from Tacoma Opera after their performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor.” They felt they had a positive and constructive conversation about the PAEC’s resident artist organization’s policies, as well as how the opera could begin to work toward becoming the PAEC’s seventh resident arts organization, Gressett said.
Brian Hoffman, the general manager of Spectra — a venue management company that manages the PAEC and 188 buildings throughout the U.S. — also contacted Koran following the opera’s production on Nov. 12 to discuss additional options for the opera to perform at the PAEC in the future, Gressett said.
She noted that Koran praised the PAEC following the opera’s performance in a Nov. 9 email to the mayor, stating “it was a pleasure for us to perform there. We have received nothing but good feedback from our patrons about the production and the facility and I sincerely hope that the feedback you got from the PAEC patrons and the good people of Federal Way who saw the production was similar.”
Gressett said based on Koran’s feedback, it is “concerning” that Koran has now stated that the production was a nightmare.
She noted that Spectra worked with the opera following their production upon their request to potentially bring them on board as a resident artist organization. Spectra provided the necessary steps the city required for the opera to obtain that status, however, Koran stated in a Dec. 27, 2017 email to Hoffman: “Thank you for letting us know the results of our request to become a PAEC resident arts organization. Although we are disappointed, we understand that you have to follow the guidelines. It is my sincere hope, however, that at some point in the future, Tacoma Opera will meet the standards of the guidelines and become a resident arts organization.”
Gressett said one of the requirements for organizations to become a resident artist is they must present a minimum of two productions at the PAEC over a consecutive two-year period. At the time of their request, Tacoma Opera had only presented one production. After “Lucia di Lammermoor,” the opera signed a contract for their spring 2019 performance of “Elixir of Love,” but on Feb. 20, 2019 they proceeded to cancel that contract and remove their dates from the calendar, Gressett said. At that time, Koran expressed via email that he hoped the opera would be able to perform at the PAEC again.
“When a user group requests additional accommodation be made for them by the PAEC, such as reduction in rental rate or added marketing benefits, it would require the PAEC to request additional subsidy from the city to cover the shortfall in revenue and additional expenses,” Gressett stated. “Although the PAEC and the City understand and are in agreement that more user groups would like access to the facility, it is also our responsibility to the taxpayers and members of this community to uphold the policies of the facility and operate the PAEC in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Koran still hopes he can bring the opera back to Federal Way some day — and he has heard the same from patrons who come to their productions from Federal Way.
“They expressed discontent that we are no longer in Federal Way,” he said. “Until the management and the city gets its act together, there’s nothing I can do with the PAEC.”
He said Federal Wayans are also dismayed at the groups that Spectra books at the PAEC.
“They’re not that interested in the traveling dancing monkeys, or whoever they bring in,” he said. “They expressed a deep dissatisfaction with the quality of events that are being booked.”
Koran hopes to reach audiences in the entire south Puget Sound region. He would consider coming back to the PAEC, but Spectra would “really have to convince me that they want our company to perform at their facility. Frankly, it’s business, and the experience I had business-wise was so disappointing that I’d be very reluctant to do anything at the PAEC again unless they were really able to convince me.”
The PAEC is a gem, he said, “and I do hope that Federal Way realizes that and will finally be able to get it to the point where it’s of service to the community. Right now I don’t think it is.”
Cost of the PAEC
Karen Brugato, a member of the city’s Arts Commission, said this year, the commission wanted to organize an arts weekend featuring artwork from various genres at the PAEC, including poetry, visual arts and sculpture.
“Because we built the PAEC — let’s use it for art because we’re part of the Arts Commission,” Brugato said.
Hoffman with Spectra went over the rates for the commission to use the PAEC. Brugato said it would have cost the commission thousands of dollars in rental fees.
“And I’m thinking, ‘Is that what the city paid for the Hachinohe?’” She said of the week-long photo exhibition the city hosted at the PAEC last year featuring artwork from artists in Hachinohe, Japan — Federal Way’s sister city.
The commission met with Spectra management in July to inquire about what the city paid to rent the PAEC for the exhibition. Brugato said the city only paid for personnel costs, but did not pay any rental or facility use fee.
“So why the heck are they charging us thousands and thousands of dollars for one little weekend? We’re part of the city,” she noted.
However, Hoffman said from a contract perspective, the commission and the city are separate entities. In addition, Gressett said Spectra’s agreement with the city is different than their agreement with each user group. She said there are certain city-hosted, city-led events that qualify per Spectra’s agreement to not have rental rates charged.
While the commission is willing to pay for personnel costs for their event as well, the high cost of the rental fees was a big factor in their decision to move the arts weekend to next December.
“It would be great for the city and big to put this on,” she said, noting the event would draw groups from across South King County.
As the commission goes through their process each year of providing grant funding to local arts groups, Brugato said that other groups have also voiced concerns over the PAEC’s high rental fees.
“Every single time, without fail, every group has said the PAEC is more expensive than they thought,” she said.
Holly Rose, the managing artistic director for Rosebud Children’s Theatre Conservatory in Federal Way, agrees.
She said while she would love to hold the theatre’s annual holiday show at the PAEC, she was quoted that the rental rate would cost $12,000 plus technician fees of $31 per hour for 10 evenings.
“After hearing that, I didn’t even bother to ask about our summer youth musical theatre festival …, she said. “[It] would be amazing to host this and the holiday show at the PAEC. But it is too cost prohibitive.”
Hoffman said the PAEC has three rental rates: one for resident artist groups, a nonprofit rate and a private for-profit rate. He said resident groups pay “a very nominal fee” to perform at the PAEC.
According to the resident artist fee schedule that the council approved in December 2016, resident artist organizations pay theater rentals of $664 for six hours Friday through Sunday, and $300 for six hours Monday through Thursday. This does not include patron service, box office, equipment or labor fees, such as $17-$30 per hour for a technical crew.
For the Federal Way Symphony — a resident arts organization at the PAEC — the price to pay to rent the facility is a double-edged sword, says symphony board president Kathi Ferrari.
“We’re in a much better venue and it brings a level of legitimacy to us, that we didn’t have performing in the church,” she said. “But our costs are up a little.”
A typical concert series with two rehearsals and a concert costs about $1,500, Ferrari said, noting the group relies heavily on donors as they don’t make a profit from their performances.
But the cost doesn’t slow the symphony down.
“Out of all the groups, we’re the one that is there the most,” she said of the PAEC, noting the symphony performs six shows throughout their season, which began in October.
Ferrari said when the symphony began performing at the PAEC when it opened two years ago, it was an eye-opener to the musicians.
“It’s a fantastic place to perform,” she said. “The acoustics are phenomenal, kind of rivaled only by Benaroyal Hall, but it has more intimacy than Benaroya Hall does.”
Overall, the symphony’s experience at the PAEC and with Spectra has been a positive one.
“Since the Spectra people have taken over, it’s been really quite easy to work with them,” Ferrari said, noting the ease in communication between the arts group and Spectra. “They’ve been really accommodating and really trying to help the symphony accomplish what we need to accomplish.”
She noted one ongoing challenge for everyone involved — from the city to the resident arts groups — is public awareness and publicity of the PAEC.
“How do you get the word out? Having a sign on the building makes a big difference.”
Richard Kong, founder of the Federal Way Youth Symphony Orchestra, has been a resident arts organization with the PAEC since it opened in 2017, and so far he said the experience has been a blessing.
“Every concert [at the PAEC] our audience is growing,” Kong said. “We are very blessed.”
Kong said one of the only issues they have run into is their rehearsal times being Wednesday nights from 4:30-7:30 p.m. As his orchestra is comprised of students, a rehearsal time over the weekend would work better, he said.
However he understands that most performances at the PAEC happen over the weekend, so this is only a minor complaint he has over an otherwise great experience.
One of the best blessings, he said, has been watching his students perform over the years and seeing them grow out of their nerves.
“The kids are comfortable with the facility now, they have more confidence.” Kong said. “The sound is amazing as well, best sound in our area.”
He is also thrilled about the membership increase the orchestra has seen since becoming a resident arts organization with the PAEC.
“Since we moved to the PAEC, we have grown members about twenty to twenty-five percent.”
Neither the Federal Way Chorale nor the Federal Way Harmony Kings — also PAEC resident artist organizations — responded to requests for comment.
Finding ways to get community buy-in on PAEC
Dan Hershman, the chair of the Federal Way Arts Commission, is concerned about an apparent lack of communication and community-building between Spectra, the public and the Arts Commission.
“How could Spectra work better with the community and the Arts Commission to improve the communication and community-building?” He asked.
Hoffman responded that at an Arts Commission meeting in September, he told the commission he would be more than happy to meet with them on a more regular basis. However, he wants to accomplish goals with these meetings; he doesn’t want to meet just to meet.
“What are the goals? What’s the objective? How can we continue to bridge that gap?” Hoffman said.
This fall, Hershman plans to propose a solution that he hopes will help bridge the gap, though.
He suggested creating a separate committee to be a liaison between Spectra, the Arts Commission and the community.
“It’s been a learning and growing experience for us,” he said.
However, Hoffman rejected this idea, and said it seemed like it would add unnecessary steps to an already complex situation.
“I think that’s another layer of red tape,” he said. “I’ve offered my services to the Arts Commission … I think [that suggestion] just muddies the water.”
Gressett agreed with Hoffman, and said that Arts Commission meetings is a great platform for commissioners to find out information about the PAEC and ask questions “because they already have a board put together and a platform that’s currently discussing the PAEC on a monthly basis.”
Of the initial relationship the Arts Commission had with the PAEC, Hershman said, “We had a positive relationship with the initial management of the PAEC under Theresa [Yvonne].”
When Spectra took over and Hoffman became the new manager, that relationship had to be re-established.
The PAEC is a “relationship we’ve been trying to grow,” Hershman said.
“The PAEC is arguably the cultural center of Federal Way and is a central part of what our Arts Commission’s objective should be …” he added.
However, since the city awarded Spectra the management contract of the facility, the commission doesn’t have much to do with the PAEC. Hershman doesn’t think the commission should be running the PAEC though.
“I see our role as bringing people together in terms of talking about what they would like to see happening at the PAEC.”
This will facilitate a larger community buy-in, he noted.
Hershman wants the PAEC to succeed and wants it to be a staple for Federal Wayans.
“As the chair of the Arts Commission, I feel that the community needs greater ownership of the PAEC and that will happen when people go to it and experience it,” he said.
He said the PAEC can’t be successful if people don’t support the events there.
“What I would tell the community is come and embrace what we have and, excuse my language, instead of pissing and moaning about there’s nothing to do — there’s a lot to do here,” Hoffman said. “ At the end of the day, we have a great facility … and have national touring artists, regional artists, local artists that are performing here. We just need everybody to buy in and see what we have in our own backyard and not go and spend their money elsewhere.”
Hershman said that Spectra has done well bringing in a variety of performers and getting people through the doors. However, he hopes Spectra will also focus on local arts groups “rather than the latest group to come through town to perform at the PAEC.”
“When people see themselves, people they know, or their neighbors reflected, it builds a stronger identity.”
When the PAEC was built, Hershman said there was a greater sense that the facility would be more community-focused.
“I don’t know what was promised or the discussions that were had … prior to Spectra,” Hoffman said. “Our objective is to be a community theater, fiscally responsible, minimize the subsidy, provide quality entertainment, bring outside user groups, outside attendees to Federal Way.”
Gressett added that the PAEC is a Spectra and city partnership and the goals that the facility started with and that have evolved continue to be a partnership moving forward — but they haven’t changed.
While Hershman thinks there should be more collaboration between Spectra and the community, overall, Hershman said that Spectra is just doing the job the city hired them to do — take care of the day-to-day operations of the PAEC.
“It’s a world class facility, a great asset for the community,” Hershman said of the PAEC, noting it’s well-designed stages and audience areas, the beautiful layout, and the perfect position in downtown Federal Way.
The challenge, he said, is to figure out the most fitting way to use it that best supports the city’s artistic community as well as helps to create Federal Way’s arts identity.
The city could achieve this by updating its cultural plan, which has not been re-done since 1994, he said. This effort will need the support of council members, as there will be an expense to put it together, he noted. The last time he said it cost about $70,000.
“We now have the PAEC … but the community needs to come together, whether it’s performing arts groups or community leaders and businesses and schools, and sit down at the table and just decide ‘hey, what do we want to do with this facility?’”