Five Hundred Meeeelion Dollars

I've been scratching my head at the news coming out of KATU, KGW, and The Oregonian this week that OMSI is planning a $500 million expansion. So I was pleased to receive some clarifying correspondence from OMSI president Nancy Stueber, which explained the situation a little further.

The backstory, of course, is that OMSI's struggling right now, with weakening attendance and fewer contributions. Like most responsible organizations are doing, they have reforecast their budget and are planning to simply do less in the months ahead. As no fewer than 10 arts administrators have told me in the past month, there's no fat to trim in most of these budgets. Most cuts will adversely affect programs and people's lives. In cutting their budget by 10%, OMSI has made the difficult decision to layoff 20 employees representing every management level of the organization.

Several days before these cuts were made, The Oregonian ran a story about future eastside development and an OMSI's long range expansion that has been discussed internally for years. The timing, as Stueber points out, was surprising and unfortunate, given that OMSI had just made the decision to layoff staff and reduce some programs. So when the layoff news broke, it was hard to reconcile the two stories.

The way the story has played out (especially in subsequent versions on the TV news, whose reporters can be incredibly lazy in my opinion), it was made to sound that OMSI wants to spend $500 million to expand -- which is disingenuous and sensationalist. Stueber explains how the press pinned this figure: "If 1 million square feet of land was fully developed over the next decade, at an average dollar/square foot rate, it would be worth an estimated $500 million in today's dollars. Any OMSI expansion would be a much smaller footprint and cost, and we would seek investors and development partners." There are no concrete plans for any such expansion, but if it were to proceed, it wouldn't be for years assuming the economy improves (and I for one like to think that yes, someday, the economy will improve.)

Hey press: back off!

As crazy as things are right now, I worry that some of our arts and culture organizations aren't going to make it through. As I see several of my favorite restaurants and small businesses failing around me, I wonder if it's fair to even wish that every organization could survive. In any event, this economy will be the ultimate test, separating those who have solid leadership and finances in place from those who do not. Flexibility in planning (and adjustments, as OMSI has made) will also be key. And while each organization must be as prudent as possible to weather the current financial crisis, they mustn't stop thinking about the future and the world that awaits us on the other end of this mess. I salute those organizations who can make the painful cuts that are necessary now, while still crafting a bold vision for the future so that when that future arrives they can seize the opportunity.

In the meantime, can you imagine how unbearably depressing all of this would be if we hadn't just elected Obama?!?

1 comment:

MightyToyCannon said...

Thanks for posting this clarification of OMSI's intentions. My reaction in reading about a half-billion capital campaign was the predictable, "Whaa?"

As for what this economy will do to cultural institutions, I suspect that some that were already teetering may topple. Survival will certainly be a function of adept management and timely adjustments to programs and strategy. A more important factor may be whether an organization simply has the resources to ride out the storm. Does it have the capital to keep making payroll while waiting for ticket-buyers and donors to stop cowering in the corner?