Editor's note: After this column was written, the Las Cruces City Council voted to turn over management of the Rio Grande Theatre to Visit Las Cruces effective July 1. The vote came after the Dona Ana Arts Council decided not to renew its contract, which expires June 30.
Commentary: I'm glad I'm not a city councillor deciding who should run the Rio Grande Theatre.
Instinct tells me that it should not be Philip San Filippo; so do others' observations; but I'd want to ask some hard questions of Kathleen Albers, too.
San Filippo deserves a separate column. He's about to take on an important economic development job for which his past experience doesn't seem to qualify him. He's an experienced salesman, a tourist-development guy, but he's no economist and may not have done economic development. He recently said we'll be real busy because of the Spaceport. I hope he's right. I hereby offer to bet him $100 he ain't. (Two years ago, calling Spaceport America “the Kitty Hawk of the Future,” he predicted we'd see the next space flight here within two years. I hope his proposals for what he'd do with the RGT have more solid foundations.)
I don't think this battle started as a power grab by Mr. San Filippo. I believe that when City Manager Stuard Ed first met with the Doña Ana Arts Council, DAAC complained a little too much about its situation with the theatre. Ed walked away thinking DAAC wanted out. Then Ed invited San Filippo to submit a plan. DAAC folks say Ed heard what he wanted to hear. Maybe. I think DAAC (whose supporters say it adds significant funds to the $120,000 it gets from the city each year to run the theatre) hoped to improve its deal with the city. But I wasn't in the room.
Also, some third-parties unrelated to the city administration have significant complaints about DAAC. Folks I know and trust but can't identify here.
Economic development isn't the main purpose of a community theatre. Being a widely-used community resource that helps us be the best we can be is. Like the plaza, the theatre need not make a profit; but neither should we waste our money.
History should matter in this decision. DAAC saved the RGT, which might have disappeared like St. Genevieve's Church. DAAC did a lot of fund-raising. The community stepped up. Former DAAC Board Chair Keith Whelpley speaks of the beautiful community spirit he and others experienced. DAAC spent a lot more energy, imagination, and money than the City did making sure there's a Rio Grande Theatre to argue about today.
But the City has every right to ask DAAC to live up to a contract. If both parties agree on something, both should respect that agreement. I don't know how businesslike things were before. It wouldn't be fair suddenly to demand letter-perfect performance of a contract where that hasn't been demanded before. Unless there's been fraud, the City Council probably should extend DAAC's contract for a year, but instruct Ed to negotiate fairly with DAAC and specify expectations. “Fairly” means with respect for both taxpayers' economic interest and DAAC's important contribution to this community resource. (Let's also note the probability that imminent road construction downtown will sabotage RGT attendance.) Further, if San Filippo or anyone else has good ideas, share 'em! We all want the best for our community – and especially for the arts.
The City should also, without undermining DAAC, create a way for critics of RGT management to voice their concerns without fear of negative consequences. I'd also suggest a diverse contingency-planning committee to consider all aspects of the theatre's future. I'm not saying DAAC will fail. Nor that San Filippo definitely couldn't step in successfully in 2018 or 2019. I'm saying that if DAAC doesn't pan out and the CVB alternative doesn't look promising, we can't just punt.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 16 April 2017, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website; and KRWG Radio will air a spoken (and slightly condensed) version twice on Wednesday.]
[A friend I spoke with about this stuff said, "I'm glad you're writing a column about this." I quickly replied, "I'm not." Too many people I like and trust are on different sides of this fight, with strong views. Unfortunately I don't always mince words, either. So I'll probably be losing a bunch of friends over this one. City officials frustrated by dealings with DAAC, and other critics of how the arts group is run, will feel disrespected; folks in the DAAC camp will be annoyed that I haven't hewed to anyone's line, but just tried to articulate my imperfect view of the facts. That view starts with certainty that the highest and best use of the theater is as a community institution, not as a part of some economic-development scheme -- although the theater should be able to assist in that efforts as well. At the same time, the City has the right and obligation to try to make sure the Theater is well run.]