Maple Leaf: Will “more money” be a recurring theme?   

Published in the July 25, 2018 edition of the Brown County Democrat.

The July 18, 2018 article in the Democrat, “New ‘Leaf’ Turned: Work begins on performing arts center,” provided the highlights from the groundbreaking ceremony for the Maple Leaf Performing Arts Center (MLPAC).

The same edition of the paper also included the article “Additional loan sought for Maple Leaf project.” The request for additional monies is because construction bids exceeded the project budget by $743,167. In addition to the new $200,000 loan, Convention Visitors Commission (CVC) Board member Mike Patrick suggested soliciting donations for $600,000. This amount would include covering the money needed to pave the parking lot. Another requirement that was recently identified by the Maple Leaf Management Group is the need to develop a strategic plan.

At the groundbreaking, President of the County Commissioner Dave Anderson was quoted with stating the following: “No process was missed, not one thing was overlooked and I looked closely. It was done right.”  

This may be an accurate statement from a legal standpoint if not somewhat overstated. The county attorneys – Barnes and Thornburg did oversee the project to ensure compliance with appropriate laws and regulations.  Similar sentiments were expressed by Council President Keith Baker. Baker remarked that government officials performed their due diligence and he was complimentary of the Maple Leaf business plan — referred to on the Maple Leaf website as “The Plan.”

It’s unfortunate that both Anderson and Baker referenced opposition and obstacles to the project which could likely have been prevented through a more deliberate planning process, transparency and by conducting open meetings. Citizen input at public meetings would have helped to identify risks and may have also led to suggestions for other options other than a music venue. This information would have allowed the commissioners and council members to make more informed and balanced decisions.

A little history. Commissioner Diana Biddle led this project on behalf of the commissioners, Councilman Baker on behalf of the council and innkeeper Barry Herring on behalf of the CVC. Only the commissioners and council are authorized by law, to approve the funding for this venture.

Barnes and Thornburg, at the direction of Commissioner Biddle in July of 2017, designed a process for fast-tracking this project. The initial plan by the attorneys would have included public meetings and the active involvement of all affected government entities. The county Redevelopment Commission (RDC) volunteered to facilitate this process. The RDC was not asked to be involved in the fast-track process.

The fast-track process included a refusal by the commissioners and council to hold public meetings to solicit input from citizens on the desirability of this project. At the public meetings, which were held to approve zoning and funding, commissioners and council members declined to respond to written questions, many of which were provided in advance of the meetings.

The Maple Leaf project team included members with an inherent conflict of interest.  Doug Harden is credited with developing the idea for this project that he refers to as his ‘dream.”  Harden is identified as the designer and architect who has a direct financial interest in this project. The innkeepers who led this project will indirectly benefit from increased overnight stays in their respective establishments.  Individuals that served on the team to promote this project did not include anyone that identified expertise or experience in owning and managing a music venue.

Is a 2000-seat music venue feasible? Assuming that what worked in the past (the Little Opry) will work in the future is a significant risk. Given the conflict of interest, the lack of music venue experience among project leaders and the inexperience of commissioners and council in reviewing a “business plan” for what is generally considered a private sector venture, contracting for an independent feasibility study was needed to identify and manage the risks associated with the project. The council refused to delay the project to contract for the needed study.

The collateral for the Maple Leaf loan is future profits from the venue and revenue from the innkeeper’s tax.  Initially, profits were to be shared with the county.  A bank or other lender without collateral from tax revenue would require a private sector venture of this type to develop a more thorough business plan.  The requirements for business plans are available from the Small Business Administration. An example of a Music Theatre Business Plan is available at bplans.com.

Consequently, since the bank was not relying solely on a business plan to help assess the risks associated with this project, it was up to our commissioners and council to educate themselves to ensure they were performing their due diligence before voting to approve this project.

Citizens were not informed through an announcement in the Democrat of any public meetings where the business plan was to be reviewed and discussed by the commissioners and council before their vote to approve this project. Due diligence would have required several public meetings.

The decisions that have already been made by the Commissioners, Council and CVC will determine the success or failure of this government-owned music venue.  At this point, my suggestion for voters is to elect representatives that will oppose any future effort to transfer all or part of the $12.5 million or more Maple Leaf debt onto county taxpayers or use general funds to subsidize the venue in any way.

This project was sold as “too good to fail” – let’s hope that’s true.   The public and voters will determine if the decisions and process used to fast-track this project are in the best interests of all county citizens.

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