Editor’s Note: This is the first story in the Mirror’s two-part investigation into how local artist groups are faring at the now two-year-old Federal Way Performing Arts and Event Center.
Sue Pisek huffs when people rant about how the new stairs being constructed at the Federal Way Performing Arts and Event Center could be vandalized or become a homeless magnet.
Or how the city should have spent more money on cops instead of anything in or around the nearly $33 million PAEC — the most expensive public project in city history.
“Give it a rest once in awhile,” she recently posted on social media after a resident took another shot at the PAEC staircase.
Pisek is part of the group of passionate arts advocates on the Federal Way Coalition of the Performing Arts — now the Federal Way Performing Arts Foundation — who raised over $1 million for the facility’s construction.
“It took years for the community to get a performing arts center in Federal Way,” said Pisek, who is the team manager for the Jet Cities Chorus — one of five resident arts organizations at the PAEC. “I worked at it for 25 years to get that to happen.”
When many local arts groups banded together and formed the coalition 25 years ago, coalition secretary Pisek, along with many others, went to countless council meetings over the years to advocate for the PAEC.
“It was a decades-long endeavor and we finally got it and it was a good plan for the downtown Federal Way area,” said Pisek, noting how the PAEC is helping to transform the city’s downtown from a stagnant to a vibrant area.
So Pisek was shocked when Jet Cities’ rental rate at the PAEC went from zero to $320 per rehearsal, which has ultimately caused the chorus to rehearse elsewhere.
The Mirror reached out to a half-dozen local arts groups to find out how they are faring at the PAEC that has been operating for just over two years. While some say the state-of-the-art facility has brought them the exposure they had hoped for, other groups, including Jet Cities, feel left out of the PAEC and say the facility management’s vision does not align with the community’s vision for the PAEC. In addition, the Tacoma City Ballet said a financial dispute with the city recently drove them out of the PAEC altogether.
For Jet Cities, the increased rental rate was a “rude awakening all of a sudden to have our rent go up to 320 dollars and it was like, holy crap, how did this happen? We were mystified,” Pisek said, adding, “That’s out of our range for what a small community group can afford, so consequently we found another rehearsal space.”
However, Autumn Gressett, the city’s community relations liaison and contract administrator, said the city had an arrangement with Jet Cities that had allowed them to have free rent in exchange for the city’s purchase of their risers.
Per Jet Cities’ memorandum of understanding with the city, the group gifted their choir risers in the amount of $12,864 to the city. In exchange, the city allowed the chorus to rehearse at the PAEC on Monday evenings up to the equal value of the risers.
But Pisek is aware of this agreement.
She said the chorus leadership had discussions with the PAEC’s previous executive director, Theresa Yvonne, about what would happen when the arrangement came to an end. Pisek said those discussions included that the city would “grandfather the group in” and continue to allow Jet Cities to rehearse at the PAEC, free of charge.
“That never made it into writing,” she said. “That was the understanding they were working toward. They were negotiating with Theresa Yvonne and she was always more than willing to work with us.”
So when the arrangement came to an end in May 2019, Pisek said Spectra — the venue management company that took over PAEC operations in 2018 — would not negotiate the rental price with Jet Cities. In addition, she said Spectra management also “tacked on” a $31 per hour staffing fee during rehearsals.
However, Gressett said rental rates are nonnegotiable.
“The rates that are set in place for the resident artist organizations were approved by the council in 2016,” she said. “That’s not something that on an individual basis is negotiated for each group.”
In addition, the staffing fee wasn’t something that Spectra tacked on, said Brian Hoffman, general manager of Spectra.
“Previous staff missed applying that to their trade,” Gressett said, noting that Spectra still honored the trade agreement when they came on board, despite the discrepancy.
Hoffman noted that Jet Cities “got a freebie. We were theoretically eating that cost.”
In addition to the rental rates, Pisek said Jet Cities had other issues with Spectra.
“We tend to be a social group. If someone wanted to bring in cookies – that was forbidden,” she said. “They were kind of being persnickety with us. I get it, they’re trying to run it as a business and we are just one of the resident arts groups.”
However, Hoffman said Spectra has the full reign in their management agreement with the city to do all in-house food and beverage. He said Spectra has allowed user groups to bring in approximately 200 pre-packaged items.
“So ‘grandma Smith’ can’t make 50 cupcakes and bring them in because if somebody gets sick, it’s a different headline … that people get sick on a product that we didn’t provide,” Hoffman said. “And also we don’t allow that to be brought onto the stage or other parts of the building because that’s an additional cost that we have to incur to clean that up. So we have tried to minimize the amount of product from the outside that’s coming in.”
As far as Spectra running the PAEC like a business, Hoffman said the city hired their venue management company to subsidize the PAEC for Federal Way taxpayers.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility to the city and to City Council and the residents to minimize the subsidy and bring in additional revenues and look at expenditures to minimize those, so at the end of the day it doesn’t fall back on the general fund.”
Pisek said Jet Cities is in the process of setting up rehearsal space at the same church that Harmony Kings – another PAEC resident arts group – uses.
While Jet Cities is no longer listed on the PAEC’s website, the group is still considered a PAEC resident artist organization, Hoffman said. He noted Jet Cities is not listed on the website as Spectra does not have any of the group’s dates for any of their upcoming performances.
Pisek said Jet Cities tried to have a performance at the PAEC every year, but this year it’s not going to work out.
“It is expensive to have our shows there,” she said. “I understand it’s a business and they need to make money. I ‘d like to understand more of what they’re willing to do to facilitate [rehearsals for] us. The price seems high; we love the quality of the performing arts center but maybe we’re just too small to profit much from it.”
Pisek said while the chorus has made enough money to cover their expenses with a small profit leftover during their past two annual performances at the PAEC, they consistently depend on fundraisers to keep them going.
“It’s not a big money maker for us but it’s a great venue and exposure for us.”
She added Spectra is an outside group and lacks a local connection to the community.
“The fact that I was secretary for the Federal Way Coalition of Performing Arts participating in raising money to get a performing arts center — they had no knowledge of that,” Pisek said. “They‘re an outside group; they look at the ins and outs.”
However, Hoffman noted that he and other Spectra employees live in Federal Way.
“This is my community as well,” he said. “So to hear that I’m an outsider, that kind of rubs me the wrong way a little bit, to be very frank, because I’m invested here. I want to be successful here. That’s why we like living here is to be successful and to provide great quality entertainment to our community.”
Gressett said when an artist group jumps from being in a church to a state-of-the-art facility, that comes with a lot of change. She said as much as Hoffman has been extremely flexible and willing to help local arts groups adapt to this change, user groups also need to be willing to bend.
“And that would go vice versa for us,” Gressett added. “If we were unwilling to bend, then that would make us not a good community partner. But the community groups have to embrace the change and be willing to open up the conversation to doing things differently and asking the questions and not feeling scared that if you only have a thousand dollar marketing budget, throw the question out there.”
Hoffman agreed that local arts groups need to adapt to the changes that the PAEC brings.
“Maybe you have to raise your ticket price from twelve dollars to fifteen dollars to cover those few expenses because now you’re getting a state-of-the-art sound system and lighting system that you didn’t have when you were over here,” Hoffman said. “Again, it goes back to, I could have my wedding reception at the VFW for 750 bucks — all in. But you get what you pay for.”
Hoffman added he has sat down with every resident artist group and explained that Spectra is their partner.
“We want them to be successful and we’re here for every event at the PAEC, but we can’t do it for free. We can’t do it at a cost to every resident or taxpayer in the city of Federal Way.”
But Pisek understands that cost.
“It’s a beautiful facility and I wish we could use it more, but economically it’s difficult for us,” she said. “Granted, we’re never going to make a lot of money, but we’d like to benefit from it. We worked hard for it.”
Part two of the Mirror’s investigation into how resident artist organizations are faring at the PAEC will include the Tacoma City Ballet’s financial dispute and other challenges with the city that ultimately drove the former resident artist organization from the PAEC, as well as other local arts groups’ experiences at the PAEC.