Oh, no. Guess who’s back? Uncle Bob. Can somebody tell him we can’t see him now because we just got run over by a bus? No, I know. Probably not. Bob knows that one by heart.
We discussed Uncle Bob in this space not quite one year ago. Bob is my metaphor for the wealthy people in Dallas who tell us they’re going to pay for everything at major municipal venues like the Dallas Arts District or Fair Park ... maybe. Bob is the very distant relative (tell me again how we’re related, Bob?) who only shows up when he’s in the midst of a tiny cash-flow situation. Tiny to him. Not tiny to us.
Last year, we talked about Bob when the AT&T Performing Arts Center told the city it needed an extra $15 million from the taxpayers. The center’s wealthy patrons had come up short on the construction bill that they had committed to pay. Just, you know, a tiny amount short. $15 million.
ATTPAC sits on 10 acres in the city’s Arts District at the north end of downtown and includes the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, Annette Strauss Square, and Elaine D. and Charles A. Sammons Park, as well as Lexus Red and Silver underground parking areas. Architects for those structures include Joshua Prince-Ramus, Norman Foster and Spencer de Grey. Needless to say, it’s all first rate. Top notch. But last year, the patrons, as they like to be called, were, you know, a tiny bit short.
Taxpayers did not make the decisions about architects and finish and the overall plan of the place. The wealthy patrons made those decisions. The wealthy patrons had control because they were providing so much of the cost of construction. A lot of the cost. But, you know, they were short. $15 million. So last year, City Hall gave it to them. $15 million.
I said at the time that we needed to do an Uncle Bob audit. Nobody likes doing that. First of all, Uncle Bob never puts the arm on you over lunch at McDonald’s. Lunch with Bob is always at some place like Al Biernat’s, a tony place where Bob’s busy the second he walks in, saying hello to Mark Cuban, swapping jokes with the mayor, stuff like that. And here you are, some grubby little bean-counter, and you’re going to make him list his finances for you on a napkin? Wow, awkward.
But it’s like, “Bob, I noticed that you pulled into the valet circle driving what looked like an immense, brand-new, Mercedes Benz. So how does your ride square with your cash-flow problem?”
In the case of ATTPAC, the patrons said they owed the banks $151 million that they couldn’t pay. They said the main bank had agreed to reduce their debt by $45 million. Didn’t say why. But that put the debt down to $106 million. Great deal!
They also told the city they had $56 million in “cash reserves.” I didn’t quite get the concept at the time. You owe $151 million. You can’t pay. But you have $56 million under your mattress? Great mattress! Well, no matter — they told the city they were giving the $56 million to the bank. Seemed like the right thing to do.
That brought the debt down to $50 million. They said they were going to raise $35 million. But they needed the city to give them the other $15 million, so they could give it to the bank.
Now, if I had been scribbling away on my napkin with Uncle Bob at Al Biernat’s, I probably would have looked up at about that point and said, “In other words, you owe somebody $15 million, and all this stuff about your mattress is a fairy tale.”
Actually, if it were real life and if Bob were my real relative and if he even mentioned an amount like $15 million, I would tell him to go out into Oak Lawn Avenue and get himself run over by a bus. But we’re speaking here in metaphorical terms.
My real point about Bob a year ago was that Bob would be back. Why? Why didn’t Bob go sell that car before he ever asked me to lunch and put the arm on me? The fact that he showed up for lunch in that car and put the arm on me is proof that Bob won’t give up anything, ever, and rather than make a sacrifice, he’ll ask for the money he needs from me or somebody else he thinks is a pushover.
Let me be plain. ATTPAC is not asking anybody for more money. Yet. But someone has done the Uncle Bob audit (copy below) that I was hoping for, and that someone is the Dallas city auditor. When I say Bob is back, I am referring to the auditor’s recently released report saying, among other things, that ATTPAC “may require additional financial support from the City of Dallas in the future.”
The auditor focused primarily on the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, not ATTPAC, but the audit dug down to some detail about how ATTPAC and its patrons operate. The audit found, for example, that ATTPAC fundraising activities cost too much money for the activities (read: parties). The audit found that, according to national standards, more money should be left over after the parties to be spent on programs — stuff you and I can at least buy tickets and go to, unlike the fundraising parties.
For every dollar ATTPAC spends, the audit said, 80 cents of that dollar should go to programming. But when it's done paying for parties, other fundraising costs and administration, the amount left over for programming over a three-year period ranged from 37 to 41 cents. Half.
I have been thinking about some alternative revenue sources that might help. You know. Like, “Uncle Bob, I have a great idea. You have such wonderful social skills, chatting up Mark Cuban and telling jokes to the mayor and so on. I think I may know a guy at Walmart we could talk to about getting you a job as a greeter. I think you’d be a real hit at Walmart, handing out those shopping carts and chucking people’s kids under the chin. And I know you would rather do anything under the sun than have to keep coming to us poor family members, gouging us for money we don’t have while you’re still driving around in your Benz and having lunch at Al Biernat’s.”
Listen. Seriously. I just covered a homeless camp evacuation in Dallas where they kicked out a woman who has been living by herself in a tent while she recovers from breast cancer. How in the world could anybody ask taxpayers in this town for more money for the Arts District?
I know why they don’t want people like me booking events in the unused venues. Rather than cough up another $15 million, I’d go hunt up that porn industry expo they kicked out of the convention center. I bet those people pay cash in advance.
I’d like to see some monster-truck drag races down there. Before I saw the taxpayers pay another nickel for that place, I might even choke back my hippie liberal qualms and see if I could book in a good assault rifle show. I bet that Winspear Opera House would be perfect for professional wrestling.
And, please, I’m halfway serious. Probably even three-quarters serious. Huge sums of money were sunk in the ground in the Arts District, more than we Dallas taxpayers would have spent, because it’s not really a Dallas place, is it? It’s a Park Cities place. It looks it, and it feels it.
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Maybe the whole Arts District needs to be a little less tasty, a little more democratic. Maybe it should dissolve ATTPAC and turn the whole package over to some guy who just retired from the circus. The retired boss of the State Fair of Texas, Errol McKoy, comes to mind. If McKoy were running that show, he’d have it in black ink from the cotton candy sales alone.
The audit is very nervous-making because it sounds like a warning. I don’t believe the auditor would have put that line in there about the possibility of another bailout for ATTPAC if wasn't something serious coming. And the amazing thing is that it hasn’t even been a full year since we gave Uncle Bob that $15 million at lunch that day. Bob obviously knows something about us.
CORRECTION: AN EARLIER VERSION OF THIS STORY SAID THE AUDITOR'S REPORT HAD FAULTED ATTPAC FOR EVENT SCHEDULING PROBLEMS IN THE ARTS DISTRICT. THE REPORT CRITICIZED THE DALLAS SYMPHONY FOR SCHEDULING PROBLEMS AT THE MORTON H. MEYERSON SYMPHONY CENTER AND AT ANNETTE STRAUSS ARTISTS SQUARE. THE REPORT CHARACTERIZED ATTPAC AS A VICTIM, NOT THE CAUSE OF THESE PROBLEMS.