Paying the PAC man

A visit to Robert Tobin’s old Oakwell Farms estate last week solved not only the sudden disappearance of Express-News culture columnist Mike Greenberg (; draw what you will from the E-N’s proper-noun absence in Greenberg’s bio), it also answered the nagging question of how big a role, exactly, Bruce Bugg and his Tobin Endowment may play in the city’s future.

Enormous, it turns out.

On the dais with Bugg appeared our current political pantheon: County Judge Nelson Wolff, his wife and Hidalgo Foundation President Tracy Wolff, First Lady of SA Linda Hardberger, and — a little late but a showwoman Buffalo Bill himself would’ve approved of — District Attorney Susan Reed. From a couch in the center of the grand library, former Mayor and San Antonio Parks Foundation President Lila Cockrell echoed her wholehearted support for the afternoon’s agenda: Convince the assembled leaders of SA’s arts organizations to lobby their memberships in favor of the venue-tax propositions appearing on the ballot in the May 10 election.

Those four ballot initiatives will ask Bexar County voters to approve an extension of the hotel and car-rental taxes that funded the construction of the AT&T Center for a set of citywide projects budgeted at a total of $415 million: amateur-athletics facilities, AT&T Center and rodeo-grounds upgrades, some of the San Antonio River Improvements project, and three arts facilities, including $100 million to turn the Municipal Auditorium into the Bexar County Performing Arts Center. `See “Welcome to San Antonio,” March 23-29.`

Only it won’t be called the Bexar County PAC — if fundraising goes as scripted, someone will purchase the naming rights for at least 10 percent of the capital budget — and it won’t really belong to the County. Within 30 days of a successful result at the polls, the City, which owns the auditorium and the adjacent fire-department headquarters, will convey the property to the Bexar County Performing Arts Foundation, which is chaired by Bugg, and stocked with many of the aforementioned luminaries: the County Judge, the DA, and Mayor Phil Hardberger, plus a host of other heavy-hitters, including Tom Frosts II and III, former Governor Dolph Briscoe, Spurs owner Peter Holt, and Express-News publisher Tom Stephenson. Major San Antonio firepower, under the leadership of a once-controversial philanthropist, training its sights on those notoriously oyster-like SA wallets while economic trouble shadows much of the world. Intriguing, no?

Sure, but initially what struck me about the various construction and operating figures proposed by County PAC consultant Bud Franks and Bruce Bugg is that they’re moving in opposite directions. The Operations Business Plan prepared by Franks in December suggested a total budget of $142 million, made up of $110 million from the venue tax and $32 million in private funds. But even though the Commissioners Court shifted $10 million in venue-tax revenue to the Briscoe Western Art Museum and the Alameda Theatre, the Foundation’s monetary mission remains the same. “When the county allocated $100 million instead of $110 million, this caused the project to be scaled back to a total project cost of $132 million,” Bugg elaborated via email.

Franks’ Bexar PAC plan includes a $10-million operating and maintenance endowment, which Franks told the Current is a conservative figure. Box-office receipts rarely sustain these types of facilities, Franks said. “The bottom line is, that’s why we recommend an endowment for this project.”

Despite this cold-water warning, a Memorandum of Understanding between the County, the City, and the foundation signed in late February calls for both this Reserve Fund “to fund operating and expense shortfalls for the Campus,” and a Capital Reserve Fund, replenished by annual net operating revenues ... “if any,” Bugg allowed in his email. The Capital Reserve Fund monies — if any, one assumes — are to meet the Foundation’s obligation to maintain and repair the building.

This agreement might put the pessimistic voter in mind of the Spurs’ obligation to feed a maintenance fund to the tune of $1 million annually — not a problem with their profits, but also not enough to keep the AT&T Center off the May 10 ballot ($100 million for unspecified “upgrades,” including rodeo-grounds enhancements).

Another discrepancy that needs examination is the $500,000 the City has pledged to contribute to the PAC for five years beginning next fiscal year — according to Office of Cultural Affairs Director Felix Padrón and the MOU, but Franks’ plan shows that contribution beginning in 2010-11 and continuing for the next eight years. If the City’s correct, that infusion will end just as the new PAC is opening its doors and working to meet budget projections.

But it may be some consolation that if the Foundation defaults on its responsibilties to fund or operate the center, ownership reverts to the City. (Bexar County Civil Division Chief Ed Schweninger says this doesn’t present a legal issue, even though the tax that will have fueled the bulk of the remodel are levied by the County.)

Bugg, who served as vice chairman on the McNay Art Museum’s recent successful $51-million campaign for its new exhibition wing, says he isn’t concerned. “The construction and establishment of a performing-arts center is a tremendous quality-of-life enhancement to San Antonio that will help recruit employers and employees to San Antonio,” he wrote, and will over time help the Symphony, the Opera, and other groups grow their subscription bases. For these reasons, and because the project would renovate an historical landmark — designed by noted Texas architects Atlee and Robert Ayres to honor World War I veterans — while connecting it to the River Walk, he thinks it’s a compelling sell even in a crowded philanthropic marketplace where it will be competing with several other cultural capital campaigns.

Althought Franks’ plan recommends announcing a major gift in concert with the May 10 voting results (assuming voters give the proposal the green light), Bugg says they won’t launch the campaign until after the election, “so the private donor community would know it was a viable project.” Putting the building in the foundation’s name was also Bugg’s idea, according to the County, but the City will continue to take care of maintenance until the Foundation is almost ready to break ground — a 41-month timeline, also the amount of time allotted for raising the $32 million.

Assuming it’s really $32 million. As Franks told the Current, “When you prepare `an operations business plan`, you do it knowing that you must go back and do this again” — again and again, even as close to six months before the doors open (winter 2014 if the MOU has anything to say about it).

Current readers will recall that Bugg has been the subject of editorial ire for his role in selling Tobin Endowment artwork previously housed at the McNay to fulfill its capital-campaign pledge to the museum, and that the Endowment in its early years was accused in the national press of failing to meet its 501©3 giving obligations. In San Antonio, home to the philanthropically legendary Tobin family until Robert’s death in 2000, the performing-arts center may present the ultimate opportunity for the Endowment to prove its worthiness of Tobin’s legacy. Tobin’s first loves, after all, were opera and theater. Could that mean a naming gift? Bugg is coyly diplomatic. He spoke at last week’s meeting of the historical thread from 1926, when Robert Tobin’s great uncle, Mayor John W. Tobin presided over the Municipal’s debut, through Robert’s role in HemisFair, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary, to the proposed PAC, but when it comes to dollars, he’s noncommittal: “`We` contemplate that the Tobin Endowment will participate, along with many other San Antonio private sector donors, including individuals, companies, and foundations ... in helping to raise the $32 million.”

SA, get out your checkbooks. •