Monday night, the Fargo City Commission voted 3-2 to reconvene a small group of government leaders and community stakeholders to pin down the concept and price of what could be a performing arts center on the site of what is currently the Civic Center.
At this meeting, I was compelled to state the obvious: While it would be nice to have a new Civic/performing arts center, the cost estimate precludes construction at this time. In 2015, the estimated cost was $55 million. In today's money and with the changes likely to come, this building will be $65 million or more.
A performing arts center would be delightful if the city of Fargo had $65 million dollars locked away in a closet somewhere. We don't. To get $65 million, or even $32.5 if the private sector pays half which is unlikely, we are going to have to raise taxes or go into massive debt. Two awful ideas.
A performing arts center would be great if it didn't lose an estimated $140,000 a year (2015 dollars). That estimate assumes that we are having a pretty good year. Let us assume that maybe one or two events get cancelled for weather. That $140,000 loss could easily be a million. No similar performing arts center in the country makes money. They all lose money every single year, forever.
It would be fantastic to have a performing arts center if it didn't compete with already established private and public venues. Remember Bluestem? This new center would seat the exact same number of people. So we might have two venues, owned by the government, which both lose money, and now they are competing for business. What could go wrong?
I would love to have a performing arts center, but as a responsible city commissioner I cannot overlook the fact that we have far too many needs to be spending so much money on wants. We need to finish our $100+ million water plant and start building our $100+ million sewer plant. We have roads and bridges to build and repair. We have policemen and firemen to hire. We need to build, buy or repair buildings for them to work in. We also have the FM Diversion to start, which by the way will be much more expensive than $2.2 billion. All the while people have seen higher property taxes and special assessments. Maybe the responsible choice is to hold off on such wants and focus on these things we need.
It would be wonderful to have a performing arts center if we had the money to build it, it didn't lose money every day that it was open forever, if it didn't compete with other private and public venues, and if we took care of our needs before our wants. Other than that, it is a delightful idea.
For the record, every argument I am making here should also be applied to the convention center, which will cost twice as much and likely lose twice as much.
Gehrig is a Fargo city commissioner.