The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Money on the Ballot

By Frank Gruber

Nearly ten years ago some friends invited my wife and me to their house for an evening of fund raising. The pitch that night was being made by a recently retired opera singer Dale Franzen, and an architect, Renzo Zecchetto, and they were pitching Ms. Franzen's idea and Mr. Zecchetto's design for a new concert hall and theater to be built to replace the old auditorium at Santa Monica College's Madison campus.

In the following years, Ms. Franzen raised some money (including, by way of disclosure, a little from my wife and me), but never attracted the one big donor projects like this typically need to get built. There was some NIMBY politics aimed at the projects, as usual, but Ms. Franzen and her supporters at SMC persevered, and she had the fortune of attracting the creative involvement of Dustin Hoffman, a graduate of the college.

Then SMC included the project in a bond issue that the voters of Santa Monica and Malibu approved.

Then this year as construction neared completion on the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Eli and Edythe Broad donated $10 million to fund an endowment for operations in the programming and arts education areas. The main 499-seat auditorium is now called the Broad Stage and the 99-seat "black box" space behind it is called the Edythe Second Space.

This gift by the Broads is a good illustration of how public investment can lead to synergy with private philanthropy and is a bit remarkable, given that as considerable as the Broads' generosity has been, they have not typically directed their gifts toward as prosaic and local an institution as a community college. Both the college and the Broads deserve praise.

Saturday evening I attended one of the happier events in recent years in Santa Monica, the opening night concert of the first season of Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center. The performers were mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and soprano Kristin Clayton, accompanied by pianist (and composer) Jake Heggie. The musicians and the hall performed excellently.

Architect Renzo Zecchetto and Broad Stage Artistic Director Dale Franzen after the opening concert Saturday night.

The performing arts center also shows another kind of synergy -- one between the college's educational mission and the community's needs for a cultural center for the performing arts. The facility cost about $45 million, most of which came from the college's bond issue. That sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but it's a fantastic deal when you compare it to the cost of Disney Hall, which has a few more than four times the number of seats as the Broad Stage, but cost far more than four times $45 million.

So now at least when the traffic confines you to Santa Monica you'll have a convenient place to go to for your fix of music, theater or dance, and the students at the college have a professional grade facility to use in their educations. (For information about programming at the Broad Stage, go to their website http://www.thebroadstage.com/; the college's music department is also having its grand opening concert, featuring performances by all the school's ensembles, Oct. 25 -- for information about that, go to this link http://www.smc.edu/forms/events.asp?Q=1636.)

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The timing appears to be coincidental, but the performing arts center has opened only weeks before the college's new bond issue -- Measure AA, for $295 million -- comes before the voters. The center provides a great reminder about how the community benefits from investing in public institutions like SMC.

But then public investment appears to be the theme of the election this year in California. (I'll write more specifically about the bond issue in a future column.)

What is most noticeable about the 2008 local and state ballot is how much money there is on it -- by my count, here in Santa Monica we're going to be voting on two local tax and bond issues, one county tax issue, and four state bond measures.

I don't know if this is a record, but it is a fact that various governmental authorities wanted to put their pleas for money on this November's ballot, knowing that the presidential election would draw a lot of voters to the polls who are typically positively disposed toward governmental programs.

Little did they know that the election would occur during the greatest moment of national financial anxiety in three or four generations. I am sure that the proponents of these measures share this anxiety.

I'm not sure, however, that this will play out so badly for those taxes and bonds that are directed at real problems. (By that I'm excluding Prop. 10 on the state ballot, the welfare measure for T. Boone Pickens.) With respect to true investments in either government operations or public infrastructure, I'm sensing a counterweight to the anxiety about the economy.

Perhaps I'm a Pollyanna, but the public seems to be getting the message that the underlying problems in our economy result not from too much investment in the public realm, but from not enough.

I include in these true public investment measures, the two local measures (Measure AA as well as Measure SM, which continues and extends to some extent Santa Monica's tax on telecommunications), the one county tax measure (Measure R, to increase the sales tax to fund transportation improvements), and two state measures (Prop. 1A, the bonds for a high-speed train network, and Prop. 3, the bond for children's hospitals). (Prop. 12 on the state ballot extending the program for providing mortgages to veterans is also laudable, but it's not an investment in public facilities or operations.)

Conservatives have long opposed taxes with the mantra that the people can do better things with their money than the government can, but to a great extent the events of the past several decades of conservative rule have disproved that, particularly in California.

KCET recently aired a 12-minute video essay in its SoCal Connected series on what it called "Foreclosure Alley," an area in Riverside County of new homes that is what the producers call the "poster child for the foreclosure crisis." The video is available on line, and I recommend taking a look.(http://kcet.org/socal/2008/09/foreclosure-alley.html)

What you'll see is a tremendous amount of waste. Not only the abandoned homes, but all the material goods that contractors for the foreclosing banks now have to remove in an operations they call "trashouts."

The waste doesn't end there, however, or rather it didn't begin there; the biggest waste of all was the money that was spent -- both public and private -- in all the roads, schools, water systems, sewage systems and other infrastructure that had to be constructed to build these homes on sprawling undeveloped land.

You might want to say that it's not you who paid for that wide screen TV that the contractors take to the dump, or maybe you don't think you paid for the new highways and streets that the trucks use to take to the dump. But you did, and certainly our economy did.

Let's face it -- much of the growth in the GNP over the past decades has been in disposable junk, or in cars and houses that are bigger than most people need, without much in the way of improvement in quality of life or upward mobility for working people.

The money that was thus misdirected and wasted by myriad private decisions could have been collected by government and then invested in productive public assets -- transit systems, roads, bridges and streets where needed, sewage treatment, education, the power grid, to name a few possibilities -- that would have resulted in more income for more people and ultimately more private goods as well.

This is how California governed itself before the tax revolt of the late '70s. Why does the California Dream now seem like a . . . dream?

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In the facts-sometimes-validate-opinion-department, I have to take note of The Lookout's article last week about how the same donors -- many of whom are developers or other business interests -- are contributing both to candidates endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) and to candidates not endorsed by SMRR. ("Rival Factions Bankrolled by Developers," October 8, 2008) This is a perfect illustration of the point I made in my "Matrix" column ("WHAT I SAY -- Matrix") two weeks ago that this year the political class in Santa Monica on both sides of the SMRR line has united.

Of course it will be interesting to see what happens to Bobby Shriver now that he's endorsed Measure T. ("Shriver Suports Prop T," October 10, 2008) Maybe he and Council Member Kevin McKeown will form a new political party.


Upcoming events:

Further in the Broad Stage department, I want to make special mention that the Jacaranda Chamber Music series -- about which I have written before -- will have its first concert of this season Friday night at the Broad. After that, Jacaranda returns for the bulk of its season to its regular venue at the First Presbyterian Church on Second Street, with a final concert at Santa Monica High School's Barnum Hall. For more details, go to the Jacaranda website http://www.jacarandamusic.org/.

While I'm mentioning Barnum Hall, opera lovers should take special note, and save the date, that next April 5 the well-regarded Long Beach Opera will travel north on the 405 to present "Motezuma," a recently discovered (after having been lost for 269 years) opera by Antonio Vivaldi at Barnum. Grand opera at Barnum -- how cool will that be? For more information, go to the Long Beach Opera website http://www.longbeachopera.org/.


If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at mail@surfsantamonica.com . If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email frank@frankjgruber.net
The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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