Monday, October 23, 2006

Science Station Lessons for Pella - Part V

In my "'Hat's Off' to Gazette's Janet Rorholm," October 20, 2006, I noted that "There may very well be more stories and Gazette editorials to come on this subject." And indeed there have been. Rather than put up additional blog entries about each, there are some combined comments here.

Why Blog About the Science Station?

The reasons for blogging about the Science Station are multi-fold.

(a) Of course, I care about that particular edu-tainment venue and its future.

(b) But the reason for the headlines on these blog entries ("Lessons for Pella") is that my interests in attractions generally, and economic development in general, began as a result of my interest in understanding and analyzing the Iowa rain forest project. On the Web site I maintain about the rain forest -- where I represent that I am "neither booster nor basher" -- I have attempted to learn, and report, about "what works" with attractions, and the rational process that needs to be brought to bear in the midst of community cheerleading and boosterism. At the present time, as the rain forest promoters' search for a location finally reached the end of the road in Pella, Iowa, it is the citizens of that community who must confront, and work their way through, the myriad of issues and challenges involved in this proposed, unfunded, $150 to $200 million project. In my effort to offer them a hand with this task, it seemed to me there were lessons in Cedar Rapids' experience with the Science Station that might be usefully added to the dozens of others on my rain forest Web site.

(c) Finally, there are lessons from the Science Station of use to non-profits generally.

Science Station Board & Lessons for Boards in General

Janet Rorholm's "Board to Regroup at Science Station; Envisioning a Fresh Start, Leader Asks Members to Resign," October 21, 2006, prompted my rather lengthy essay about boards generally, including discussion under headings 1. Board members' functions and responsibilities, 2. Number of board members, 3. Public confidence in the board, and 4. Non-profit businesses. Nicholas Johnson, "Science Station Lessons for Pella - Part IV," Octobeer 21, 2006. Shortly thereafter State 29 had weighed in with the insightful humor and substantive research we've come to expect: State29, "How Many Board Members Does It Take to Screw Up a Non-Profit," October 21, 2006. That blog entry includes lists of individuals often found on boards, along with some uncomplementary assertions about them and suggestions for board composition.

The next day The Gazette did indeed offer the editorial I predicted on October 20. As it happened, it involved the same subject as my October 21 lengthy essay about boards in general, and made points totally consistent with its themes. It is very much worth reading by anyone who serves on a board (for-profit or non-profit), or who is trying to revamp a pre-existing board. Editorial, "Serious Responsibilities," The Gazette, October 22, 2006.

Governmental Financial Support of Non-Profits

This morning The Gazette offers yet another page one story regarding the Science Station, Janet Rorholm, "C.R., Linn Say Science Station Asks Too Much; Non-Profit Must Erase $1.3 Million in Debt," The Gazette, October 23, 2006, p. 1A.

Bottom line: the Cedar Rapids City Council, and the Linn County Board of Supervisors, are holding out no hope that either governmental unit is prepared to resolve the Science Station's financial problems.

There are a great many factors at play here beyond the public policy (or ideological) issue of taxpayer financing of non-profits. (a) Having asked for, and received, the resignations of the present 22 board members, and with the principal employees either arrested for embezzling or soon leaving for other reasons, "the Science Station" at this point is nothing but the president of the former board. To whom, and for what, would the money be given? (b) The financial problem is not a temporary downturn in the revenue stream, it is a $1.3 million debt. (c) There's a really short fuse between now and the closing on November 15. (d) The financial problems are largely of the prior board's making: lack of a rational business plan, lack of a management information reporting system that would catch embezzling before it exceeded $300,000, taking on the risky debt that is now bringing down the organization. This somewhat dampens one's enthusiasm for bailing them out. (e) Government money could, perhaps, be pledged as the last money added to the pot, but without substantial private contributions, or a realistic business plan to keep the place running, it may not be appropriate for governmental units to be putting in the first dollars.

So this is Cedar Rapids' problem, and Cedar Rapids will come up with the solution -- even if it is just to close the doors. I don't presume to know all that one would need to know to advise the wisest course of action.

However . . .

This morning's story contains the following:

[Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim] Prosser also said philanthropy is not typically the role of cities. ‘‘We simply aren’t in a position to be a banker of last resort,’’ Prosser said.

Council member Chuck Swore believes the issue will come up for discussion by the council. The focus may be on what role government should take in a bailout and in ongoing support of the Science Station and other cultural attractions.

This is a little disingenuous.

1. Because I am, in general, opposed to TIFs and other corporate welfare schemes it would be consistent for me to be opposed to public support of non-profits as well -- though I am not. But it does seem to be a bit inconsistent for governments that are quite willing to give away the taxpayers' money to for-profit enterprises that ought to be able to support themselves in "the marketplace," and then refuse to do so for the non-profit enterprises that are not able to support themselves.

2. Not only are public bodies able "to be a banker of last resort" they are often the banker of first resort. Public schools, parks and libraries are entirely supported by governmental units. It's not just a matter of "bailout and ongoing support." The City of Cedar Rapids, if it chose, could properly decide that the importance of science and "technology" in the community's future growth is such that the entire capital and operating costs of the Science Station will be paid by property taxpayers; admission would be free. I'm not suggesting that is what Cedar Rapids should do. There are probably many reasons why it shouldn't in this instance. All I'm saying is that it is not a theoretical, legal or ideological impossibility.

3. I think Council Member Chuck Swore has it right that the issue needs to be confronted by the relevant governmental units as an overall policy regarding educational, cultural and edu-tainment venues generally -- triggered by the Science Station issues, but not limited to their resolution. As it happens, one of The Gazette's "Homers" this morning notes that the Cedar Rapids City Council has already changed the allocations from the City's $2 million hotel-motel tax in ways that will be helpful to the community's arts and culture. Editorial, "Homers and Gomers," The Gazette, October 23, 2006.

4. The Gazette's "Homers and Gomers" feature this morning (October 23) refers to a "non-profit resource center [that helps] non-profit groups become better trained, better organized, more sustainable operations." It notes that it is "still in its infancy [and therefore] not in a position to . . . correct problems of individual organizations." Editorial, "Homers and Gomers," The Gazette, October 23, 2006. I'm not familiar with the "resource center" to which the Gomer refers, but I do know of the "Larned A. Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center" at the University of Iowa. Such resources are a major partner with the rethinking about board governance that The Gazette (and I) have been writing about, and something the Pella leaders may want to explore and utilize.
Technorati tags: , , , , .

No comments: