The price of opera

Private philanthropists might solve the new opera house's budget shortfall, but no one will ask them.

AT SEATTLE CENTER, the demolition of the Opera House is nearly complete: Skidders busily pile up hills of rebar and concrete; orange-vested workers drill into the skeleton of the old building, sending showers of bricks and sparks down from the remaining upper levels.

Rising on the site will be the new $127.78 million Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. While the private fund-raising for this new opera house is earning a standing ovation, state and county governments' roles may never even appear onstage. Public sector fund-raising is running around $13 million behind its goal. Who will make up the shortfall?

"It's too soon to write off the generosity of the private sector when the city, county, and state are in financial crises," says Seattle City Council member Judy Nicastro.

Seattle Center—the city department in charge of the project—is, however, strangely reluctant to go after more private money, even though the fund-raising is proceeding at an unprecedented pace.

Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson says the new opera house will be "one of the great halls of the world." The 2,890-seat, 276,000-square-foot facility will be the new home for the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Opera. The planned budget for the building, which will be owned by the city, is divided among the private sector ($72 million), city government ($39 million), Washington state ($12 million), and King County ($5 million). So far, private fund-raising efforts have raised an astounding $58 million, while Seattle Center's lobbying efforts have only netted around $4 million from state and county governments. Nicastro thinks the remaining state and county money is never coming. "You can kiss that money goodbye," she says.

City Council member Nick Licata agrees: "Last summer, it was apparent that we couldn't get the money from the state and the county." He is miffed that demolition proceeded when funding problems were apparent. It reminds him of New York's legendary highway builder Robert Moses' methods. "Just get those steam shovels digging up the earth and the [Seattle] public will pick up the tab," he says.

Seattle Center officials believe they can get the money out of the county and the state—it's just a matter of time, patience, and coalition building.

But aren't they overlooking a more obvious solution to the problem?

The Seattle Center Foundation, the nonprofit in charge of private fund-raising, has had extraordinary success. "We raised 75 percent [of our goal] before we had even broken ground," says the Foundation's Sherry Boyer. "I don't know of any project in the country that has raised that much money that fast."

The cell-phone magnate McCaw family alone contributed $20 million—and got the building named for their matriarch.

Boyer says that since demolition has really gotten under way, interest is picking up even more. "Since then, we've gotten this incredible momentum. People drive by and see that construction and are clamoring for hard-hat tours. Starting in May, they will be building. That's a phenomenal stage. It suddenly becomes real and tangible. [Donors] can imagine being in that hall again." And then, of course, "the opening itself triggers giving," says Boyer.

So how about just kicking those goalposts a few million dollars forward?

"It's not in our plan to try to raise additional [money]," Boyer says.

Seattle Center director Anderson says, "We have no ability to increase that private goal."

Nicastro is incredulous at this reluctance when the city is already facing a $30 million to $50 million budget deficit. "Do you cut out social services and throw money at the opera house?" she asks. "Maybe we could do a double name—the McCaw/Gates Hall. Or put plaques on the seats," she jokes.

Actually, seat plaques are available for $1,000 apiece.

Nicastro laughs, "Throw a Pepsi sign up then!"

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