Irritated commissioners give Carnival Center $4.1 million
By Wayne Tompkins
The Carnival Center for the Performing Arts got a $4.1 million bailout and stern warnings Tuesday from Miami-Dade County commissioners, who inched closer to taking control of the financially-troubled waterfront landmark.
The funding will keep the $472 million center open through the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, and cover an embarrassing series of cost overruns in which even the cost of air-conditioning was grossly miscalculated.
While unanimous in approving the emergency funding, commissioners voted to give County Manager George Burgess and commission auditors oversight on how the Performing Arts Center Trust, which manages the center, spends the money.
Several commissioners vowed this would be the last time they would vote to bail out the center, county officials are working closely with the arts center's management to correct problems and a delegation from the highly-regarded Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is to arrive in Miami early next month to meet with Carnival Center officials and offer recommendations.
Just over $3 million will come from savings from the performing arts center's construction project budget, and the center will borrow $1 million against its future year operations budget for the remainder, Mr. Burgess said.
The infusion brings the county's support of the center's operations from $3.75 million to just under $8 million for the year.
A group of about three dozen yellow-clad Carnival Center supporters, many of whom volunteer there, sat in commission chambers as commissioners, one by one, pledged their support while scolding center administrators for their mismanagement.
"Change orders, gross mistakes, mismanagement, neglect, oversight that wasn't properly overseen," Commissioner Sally Heyman said, chronicling the problems that have plagued the center. Ms. Heyman, the only commissioner who raised the possibility of firings, said it was the nature of the errors that most concerned her, including the confusion of square feet and cubic feet while calculating utility usage and "a parking debacle that was like God was going to provide the parking.
"They were the headlines instead of all of your accolades since we have opened up."
However, other aspects of the center, from its performances to its acoustics, have been well-received since its October opening. No one speaking at the public hearing, on the commission or in Mayor Carlos Alvarez's office, had any desire to see the facility go dark.
"We built a $472 million performing arts center that is significant from an international perspective," Mr. Burgess said. "If you built that today, no bid would come in under $1 billion. It's a good facility that performs well and covers its mission."
The center would have run out of money July 6, almost three months before the end of its fiscal year.
Mr. Burgess gave administrators the benefit of the doubt, saying there is no similar performing arts center to benchmark expenses against.
The budget would have been higher, he said, but center administrators were entering into the unknown and the assumptions were off.
"We're working with them to better maintain the building," Mr. Burgess said.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, who traveled to Washington to meet with Kennedy Center officials, said the private sector needs to step up in its support of the Carnival Center.
"Their occupancy is about 85% and ours is 65%," Mr. Gimenez said of the Kennedy Center. "Their private donations total $70 million a year. We're nowhere close to that."
The Carnival Center will raise about $2.2 million in private donations this year and projects $3.5 million next year, chief executive Michael Hardy said.
Mr. Hardy added that the negative publicity has caused a downward spiral.
"It's difficult to raise money and sell tickets when people think that you are closing," he told commissioners.
Carnival Center officials in February presented the county with a preliminary operating budget for the coming fiscal year that projected the center would near breakeven, based on allocations to the center from the county's hotel, food and beverage taxes rising to $10.1 million from the $3.7 million budgeted this year.