Arlington Heights candidates debate subsidizing Metropolis
The Arlington Heights village board on Monday night will get results of a monthslong study on the future of the struggling Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, but with six candidates vying for four seats on the board in the upcoming election, whether the village will continue to subsidize the downtown theater is unclear.
The 86-page study done by Johnson Consulting will be presented to the board at 7:30 p.m. Monday during a committee of the whole meeting. It will detail the economic impact on the village and the costs for several options, including closing the theater, expanding it or allowing a professional management company to take over.
The six candidates in the April 7 municipal election -- incumbents Carol Blackwood, Robin LaBedz, John Scaletta and Michael Sidor and newcomers D. Court Harris and Thomas Schwingbeck Jr. -- recently discussed the Metropolis with the Daily Herald Editorial Board.
While all candidates agreed that the arts and Metropolis are an important part of the village's downtown, there was no clear consensus on the path forward.
"It's such an emotional issue in town. There are supporters who live and breathe the Metropolis. Then there are residents who think we are throwing good money after bad," Sidor said. "So how do you balance that?"
Sidor was one of two trustees -- along with Blackwood -- who in October voted against a $450,000 bailout for Metropolis to keep the theater open.
"I will tell you this: Unless they come to us with some kind of plan to make it better in all three areas -- people, process and product -- I don't know that I can say yes to a dollar, much less $450,000, unless a strategic plan is in place," Sidor said.
Blackwood said her waning support is more about the other tasks she has to focus on as a trustee.
"The arts nourish us and bring the best of all of us to the forefront. But when it comes to managing that, is it in fact a village responsibility?" Blackwood said. "I go back to essential versus nonessential expenditures. It is nice to have, but it is nonessential."
She believes Metropolis can be self-sustainable but that it has faced setbacks due to "gross mismanagement." Former Executive Director Charlie Beck was ousted in May, and new director Joe Keefe was recently hired.
"It all boils down to a very simple equation for me: Is this my responsibility to fix Metropolis? The answer I come up with time and time again is that the electorate did not put me in office to fix a theater," Blackwood said.
In October, Scaletta said he supported the additional $450,000 for Metropolis because this time it came with strict oversight from the village, unlike a $300,000 boost given to the theater a few years ago.
Going forward, Scaletta said he thinks the village should provide a nominal subsidy for the theater, but it needs to fit within the arts and entertainment fund that already exists.
"I am not raising taxes to give more money to Metropolis. I'm just not going to do that," Scaletta said.
LaBedz, running for her first full term after being appointed to fill Mayor Tom Hayes' trustee seat, said she still thinks the village should be invested in Metropolis to some extent.
"It's part of what makes Arlington Heights great and why I live here and why a lot of people live here -- because it's more than just the essential services," LaBedz said.
Arlington Heights has been actively subsidizing the Metropolis since 2005, using money from the village's food and beverage tax. Including the $2 million the village spent to buy a portion of the Metropolis complex in 2005, the total investment so far is more than $5 million. Despite the funding, officials for years have said the relationship is merely one of landlord and lessee.
"I think one of the issues is saying, 'We're just landlords,'" LaBedz said. "That's what previous boards have been saying for years, but I think we never really were just landlords. We need to own that decision. We're involved, we've been involved. That hands-off approach for too many years is part of what created problems."
Harris said he thinks there should be better metrics to gauge success or failure of the theater and that leaders should be held accountable based on those outcomes.
Harris said the Metropolis board -- a 19-member body -- should shift from management to more of a philanthropic and fundraising board.
"We need some creative solution and not what we've been doing for the past (10) years," Harris said. "The taxpayers deserve a clear way ahead, with tangible metrics that can be judged as a success or failure and we must stick to those."
Schwingbeck said he wants to see Metropolis stay in the village, but that management needs to focus more on profit.
"They need to run it like a business," Schwingbeck said. "They need to be thinking profit and how to bring in money and be as self-sustaining as they can."
Schwingbeck and Harris said they couldn't answer if they would have voted to give Metropolis the additional $450,000 in October without knowing all the facts.
With the board set to discuss Metropolis on Monday and budget discussions to come later in the spring, it's clear Metropolis will continue to be a divisive issue beyond Election Day.
"There is not a simple path forward," Sidor said "There is no magic pixie dust that we can wave over the Metropolis to make it right. This is going to be a rough road. But I'm confident that the board is going to make the right decision going forward."