Federal Way leaders are missing a golden arts opportunity | Livingston

Like every governmental collaboration, the devil is in the details.

What will it take for Federal Way to become the dynamic community that it can be? Sadly, the drumbeat of crime, homelessness and homegrown negativity keeps us mired in psychological mud.

The counterpoint to fear, crime and negativity is community building and human connectivity. The tools of community building start with great schools and a commitment to establishing a culture that values the arts, activities, recreation and resources that elevate the human spirit.

This city built the Performing Arts and Event Center (PAEC) as an investment for supporting our community, providing a home for the city’s long-established local performing arts organizations. The currently listed resident arts organizations on the PAEC’s webpage are Federal Way Youth Symphony, Federal Way Symphony and Federal Way Chorale. These local performance organizations, in addition to a few others, provided much of the energy and community fundraising dollars convincing our city the PAEC should be built.

Our city’s leadership operates with the belief that the PAEC needs to operationally pay for itself. Playing in larger venues with higher use fees has challenged our resident organizations.

Like every governmental collaboration, the devil is in the details. It turns out that generating revenue is more important than honoring the deep roots within our community and finding ways to support the financial needs of resident organizations to perform in an elite facility that has higher operating capture needs.

When the city figured out it was not up to the challenge of managing the complexity of programming, networking the facility’s use to the greater community, and generating sufficient revenue, it chose to privatize its operation. The city is now in partnership with the Oakview Group to manage operations and programming — and improve the PAEC’s revenue potential.

The choice of a public-private partnership made meeting the needs of local groups and arts organizations wanting to make the facility their operational home more expensive and constrained potential use. The city should have increased its grant subsidy to each of our resident art organizations, absorbing the cost structure difference from performing at much lower-cost venues.

Our city has chosen to keep its so-called arts budget the same $50,000 amount that it has been for over 20 years. Did our city ever listen to the resident art organizations about their financial needs and how audience development and marketing support are necessary for performing in a larger venue?

The city appears to have little care about the needs and cost structures of its resident art users that helped support the PAEC’s creation. Our city believes it is in business to be a business outside of public safety and public works. Being quality partners with our local arts organizations and utilizing their community-building potential appears to be lost on our elected leadership and parks, recreation and culture staff.

As a comparison, the City of Auburn has an arts budget in their parks, arts and recreation budget of $790,000. Federal Way’s $50,000 annual token of arts support is hidden in a professional services line item within the city’s parks, recreation and culture budget.

Auburn, through its annual request process, provides the Auburn Symphony Orchestra with a supporting grant in the range of $80,000. The Auburn Symphony performs in multiple venues to broaden its regional reach. They can be community builders due to having foundational financial support from their city, receiving additional supporting grants, and generating revenue when venue fee structures are in balance with ticket costs.

Our leadership never thinks in terms of “are we (the city) setting our resident organizations up for success or failure?” Will our local organizations want to continue working with the city and the PAEC, or begin rethinking their use of the PAEC and consider returning to old alliances and venues that nurtured their existence? Is this what the city wants? Does the city care?

While I may chastise the city for some of its practices, it has to operate professionally with contracts and structured agreements for just about everything it does. It is first a municipal corporation and it must generate revenue where it can and manage its obligations with consistency for every entity that requests the use of city facilities. The city has a MOU (memo of understanding) with each of the resident organizations that is about to expire in August 2024.

These MOUs are similar, but have some variances that are specific to each group. If the resident organizations have complaints about the MOUs, they should be adjusted during renegotiation. But what they need most is more subsidy and support from the city.

The resident art organizations are 501(c)(3) nonprofits and may choose to go elsewhere if the terms offered by the city/PAEC place their organization’s existence at risk financially. They all have to fundraise and get grants to meet their economic obligations and Federal Way divides its $50,000 among multiple grant requestees.

The city early on could have lessened the PAEC’s cost burden by increasing its grant stipend to the resident organizations. But then again, that would require the city to be willing to listen to their resident art organizations, the arts commission, and for the parks, recreation, and culture staff to be supportive and proactive by increasing their funding support.

Is our city getting good advice from a parks director who has an understanding of the arts, economic development, and community building equal to a youngster learning the concepts of t-ball on the first day of practice? But at the same time, it may not be his fault when the elected leaders are equally clueless about how to use and invest in the arts as an economic development attractor and community builder.

Local governments tend to flounder in their direction when they forget that their main obligation is being a service to those who live work and play in their city and region. The PAEC was built to expand the city’s economic reach, build stronger ties within our community, and become a focal point for the performing arts, meetings, and special events. There is room for improvement.

Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at keithlivingstondesign@gmail.com.