City plans to go it alone on $1.8M investment
by CHRIS ROGERS
Just 48 hours after the Winona City Council’s big vote on the future of the Historic Masonic Temple Theater, city leaders were forced to rethink their multi-million-dollar plans for the building. The council was poised to borrow $1.8 million to upgrade the building, one of the first steps in a plan to partner with private organization Hurry Back Productions to renovate the historic theater and turn it into a top-notch events center. City officials had planned on Hurry Back Productions splitting the cost of that $1.8 million investment and, potentially, millions more in future upgrades to the building with the city. Following a vote last Monday on how to incorporate the temple’s collection of historic theatrical backdrops into a modern stage setup, Hurry Back Productions leader Mike Slaggie withdrew that proposal. The city lost a private investor that had offered to invest millions of dollars in the temple and an organization that had proposed to bring big-name events to the theater and draw people to downtown. Now the City Council faces a choice on whether and how to proceed with the project. Mayor Mark Peterson and city manager Steve Sarvi say the city will proceed with the project and the vision for the temple as a downtown arts destination.
“We are not turning back but will forge ahead, as the economic benefits of a strong arts community should not and will not be ignored,” Peterson stated. (See page 4A for full statements from Slaggie and Peterson.)
Also, after Monday’s council meeting, Paul Sannerud — a theater expert, a supporter of saving the historic backdrops, and board member of the community theater group Theatre du Mississippi (TdM) — offered to buy the drops for $1,000 and work to restore them eventually. (See sidebar.) His offer combined with Slaggie’s withdrawal has some City Council members reevaluating their vote on Monday night and their plans for the future of those drops.
Why did Slaggie withdraw?
In interviews this week, Slaggie said that the City Council passed the buck on what to do with the historic drops.
When Slaggie made his proposal in 2016, city leaders were excited about the idea, but his proposal to turn the theater into a modern venue for musical and theatrical productions and other events clashed with the city’s hopes to restore the drops. There simply was not room onstage for all the drops and the modern equipment Hurry Back Productions needed. So, council launched a study to analyze whether there could be a hybrid solution that would keep some drops on the stage and make room for modern equipment. That study took months longer than expected, but late last month the council got the results, including options to keep between zero and 25 drops. Drops lovers encouraged the council to keep as many as possible. Slaggie questioned the value of keeping the drops and said that more room for modern equipment would be beneficial for him, but stressed that he would work with whatever number of drops the council chose to retain. They just needed to make a decision already, he said.
On Monday night, council members said they wanted to pick a stage setup that save as many drops as possible while enabling Slaggie to succeed. The council’s vote left the exact number of drops to remain onstage to be determined. At city staff’s recommendation, the council voted unanimously for the most modern option, an option that was not designed to include any of the historic drops but could accommodate a few. Simultaneously, the council’s vote also directed city staff to negotiate with Hurry Back Productions to keep “up to 10” drops on the stage. That vote, Slaggie said, was a non-decision.
“It’s unfair to put me in the role of decider on the issue of what to do with the drops,” Slaggie said in an interview. “[The council members] shifted the responsibility from themselves to myself and whoever I would be negotiating with,” he continued. It posed a public relations problem for Slaggie. By leaving the fate of the drops to be determined, Slaggie said the council would have forced him into the position of being the anti-drops person and “potentially facing the wrath of this community.”
It also posed a logistical problem for Slaggie. Months of delays hurt his prospects for the events center, he said, and he needed a decisive answer on what sort of space he would have to work with on the stage. It discouraged him, too, he said, about the prospects of further negotiations with the city. “The fact that in the aftermath of that meeting, the drops may now disappear for $1,000 does not necessarily help revitalize my interest in further negotiations with the City Council,” Slaggie stated. “The drops were only a small piece of what the negotiations for the operation agreement would entail. The inability of the council to make a decision on what I consider to be a small piece of this project is what introduced doubt in my mind that I would be able to have a successful venture in this building,” he added.
Council member Michelle Alexander praised Slaggie’s proposal on Monday. In an interview on Thursday, she disagreed with his characterization that the council passed the buck. “The decision was made, the only thing that was left outstanding was what that number would be,” she said. “I felt like we had already made that decision. I’m sorry he felt we didn’t.” While Slaggie has consistently said that he would work with whatever number of drops the council chose to keep on the stage, Alexander claimed that the council’s directive to keep some drops on the stage was what really caused Slaggie to withdraw. “I thought that it was unfortunate … I think that if we were aware that he was unwilling to have any drops we would have made that decision, but all along I think there was an assumption that he would be OK with saving some drops,” she said.
Is there any chance to revive the deal?
City officials were hopeful that Hurry Back Productions might reverse course at some point in the future, but Slaggie himself all but ruled that out.
“This announcement is not being done as a negotiating tactic, and it’s going to be hard to imagine a scenario where I would revisit this project,” Slaggie stated.
In a press release on Thursday, Mayor Peterson praised Slaggie’s work on the Masonic Temple project and said the city would be willing to working with him if changed his mind. “I guess it was an olive branch. If there’s still an opening, we’re interested in talking,” Peterson said in an interview.
“At this time, I have seen nothing that would make me reconsider the decision,” Slaggie said on Friday. Is there anything that could happen in the near future that would cause Slaggie to reconsider? “No. Not in the near term,” he said.
Private funding was important to city’s plans
With Egyptian hawks emblazoned on its walls, a collection of 98 ornately hand-painted, three-dimensional historic backdrops made for its stage, neoclassical architectural details everywhere visitors turn, and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, the Masonic Temple is a remarkable building with a multi-million-dollar list of repair and restoration needs. A 2014 report estimated the cost of restoring building at $2.5-$4.4 million. The backdrops were water-damaged by previous roof leaks, and a 2010 report estimated the cost of restoring them at $700,000. The City Council had talked since the 2000s about taking on those projects. Throughout the early 2010s, the council laid plans to spend over $1 million replacing the roof, putting in new windows, repairing the exterior brickwork, and restoring the drops. But year after year, the council kept pushing those plans off until, in 2015, renewed calls from citizens to save the building and the drops and the prospect that private investors and philanthropists might pitch in spurred the council to action.
Last year, the city spent $530,000 replacing the Masonic Temple roof. Back in 2015, the pro-drops, pro-theater restoration group “Friends of the Masonic” urged the council to fund the project, with some supporters saying that private funding could help pay for future repair and renovation.
Last summer, Slaggie’s Hurry Back Productions offered to split the cost of $1.8 million in electrical and heating and ventilating (HVAC) upgrades with the city, split the cost of future building repairs, and invest $1 million of unmatched private funds into upgrading the theater. Enthused by Slaggie’s plan, city leaders touted the roof project as a sign of the city’s commitment to the building and laid further plans to borrow the $1.8 million needed to complete the electrical and HVAC upgrades this year, with the expectation that Hurry Back Productions would match that spending once a deal was worked out for the use of the theater. This, Slaggie and city leaders had said, was a prime example of public and private investment working together to create an events center that will attract visitors and residents and boost Winona’s economy.
City: $1.8M project
In interviews, Peterson, Alexander, and Sarvi said the city should move ahead on its plans for the Masonic Temple despite the loss of private funding and a venue operator. The vision for the temple becoming a top-notch venue that boosts Winona’s economy is a good idea that the city can pursue on its own and the city can find other partners to help advance it, they said.
“We think this project is important to Winona and we’re still interested in doing it,” Peterson said. “It’s a set back to see Hurry Back withdraw, but I think we should still forge ahead.”
Slaggie’s withdrawal comes just weeks before the council was slated to issue a bond to borrow $1.8 million for the electrical and HVAC project. The council could decide to delay that borrowing. Sarvi said he spoke over the phone with all of the council members to gauge their support for moving forward on the project.
“The real difficult part is we have the bond ready to go so we have to decide whether to proceed with that,” Sarvi said. “I don’t think anyone on the council was thinking we shouldn’t proceed with utilizing the space, the question was, without Mike’s company willing to partner with us financially, it makes it much more difficult to do that.” Despite that diffculty, Sarvi reported, the council supported moving forward with the bond sale. “The main question is do we believe the Masonic is an integral part of the arts district and the arts and culture plan for the city and the answer was a pretty resounding ‘yes.’”
State law requires the council to make decisions at open, public meetings.
Sarvi and Alexander both talked about the potential for the project to lose momentum if the city halted its plans now. “Every time you start treading water on a project where you had some momentum, it’s easy to [get distracted by] something else and you just let the thing lay there and I don’t think that’s good for the community,” Sarvi said.
“I think we’ll still have a viable community project there, it just won’t be with matching community dollars,” Alexander said. Whatever happens to the Masonic Temple in the future, these repairs are needed and the city should take care of its property, Alexander said. “Who really knows, maybe Hurry Back Productions will reappear or maybe there will be another organization that will be interested,” she added.
Will investing in the Masonic Temple benefit the city financially in the long-run? “That’s a hard one, because when you’re talking about [parks and recreation] you’re not talking about financial benefit,” Alexander said. It will, however, bring tourists and residents and great art to the city, she added. “It’s an investment in downtown and the future, and our community and businesses that benefit. All of those things add value to the city and then we as residents get to enjoy whatever happens there, too,” Alexander stated.
What about stage and drops?
The City Council will likely have to revisit its decision on the future stage setup and the fate of the drops as a result of Hurry Back Productions’ withdrawal, Sarvi said. Both Sarvi and Peterson said they would support sticking with an option that would keep few historic drops on the stage because any modern theater — whether it is run by Hurry Back Productions or another group — will likely need the space for modern equipment.
Peterson stood up for saving some drops on Monday, but acknowledged the need for room for modern equipment. “The study showed us what would need to be done to accommodate the sort of performance we wanted and would still want for this space,” he said on Friday. “The goal was to have as many drops as we can and at the same time accommodate the needs of the performance space. That would be my goal, but this offer from Mr. Sannerud changes things a little bit,” he added.
According to city staff, the council needs to decide what stage setup it will select before plans to replace the Masonic Temple’s electrical system can be laid.
Sarvi said the council plans to discuss the Masonic Temple at its meeting on February 21. A final vote on the $1.8 million bond is scheduled for March 20. Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.