By Mary M. Long
Ojai City Council members convened on Tuesday to unanimously award the construction contract for the rebuilding of Libbey Bowl to McGillivray Construction Inc. After last week’s 2-2 vote, with Councilwomen Sue Horgan and Betsy Clapp declining to approve the contract until a study could be done of the financial impact on the city’s reserve fund account, the council met again on Tuesday, determined to find a solution to the financing problems delaying the project.
Architect David Bury presented an artist’s rendering of the proposed bowl renovation, explaining what would be covered by the $2.4 million contract for the Core Components of the bowl construction. Projects of this magnitude are often designed with a core component, with additional components which can be completed as funding is available. He assured the council that “this building is designed to last for the ages,” engineered with steel and concrete and equipped to accommodate a broad variety of performing acts “anything you could imagine,” he added. The core and central components and Alternatives 1 and 3 are currently funded. This includes the shell, stage right and left, the Green Room, manager’s office, rear deck, paving, lighting poles, access off the front, driveway, handicapped ramp, new sidewalk, site drainage, fencing, underground cables, seating, paving for seating, trash enclosure, new landscaping (with the addition of two dozen new mature trees) and restored wetlands near the historic Libbey sycamore tree. According to Bury, the design of the bowl is “simple but elegant” and he says, “I have never designed a project that has gotten more favorable views and comments. We have retained the character of the historic Libbey Bowl.”
The hard wooden benches will be removed and replaced with ergonomically designed seating offering comfort to bowl patrons. Dressing rooms and offices are climate controlled and the stage right and left have been made large enough to store pianos so that delicate instruments are protected from the elements. Alternative 2 is the addition of group dressing rooms and additional star dressing rooms for which, according to Ojai Music Festival President Esther Wachtell, sufficient funds are nearly raised. Anna Cho-Wagner, who is the director of fund raising for the bowl project, said they raised an addition $50,000 last week with the “Last Gasp Party” alone bringing in $30,000 as well as an outpouring of community spirit. With $200,000 raised towards Alternative 2, the additional dressing rooms and rotunda, they are well on the way to having funds in place for their construction. Bury feels optimistic that they will be able to complete the project in its entirety, but also cautions that it “depends on the fund raising efforts of the festival.”
City manager Jere Kersnar provided the council members with a financial study of the impact on the city general reserves that financing the bowl renovation would create. Kersnar brought graphs of city reserves and presented “cautiously optimistic” and “cautiously pessimistic” scenarios to the council. The possibility of attaining outside financing for the bowl was thrown out prior to Tuesday’s meeting, with the Music Festival and the City Council collaborating to put financing in place to start the rebuilding. According to Wachtell, the funds raised by the Music Festival come from their founders and they expect a 99 percent funding of the pledges already received which she felt should allay the “worse case” fears of council members. Many festival members “have already accelerated funding their pledges,” understanding that the clock is ticking, said Wachtell.
Since McGillivray Construction will need to be paid over the construction year, the city will have to finance the construction costs out of their reserve fund while pledges are collected and fund raising continues.
Horgan asked for a 10 percent contingency plan, which was established through the use of “value engineering” to create a contingency fund without raising the overall bid for construction. According to Bury, “value engineering” is an ongoing analysis which does not compromise the quality or integrity of the bowl but helps insure that costs are controlled so that the best possible value results from the money for construction. “There is no fear here that the city won’t be getting the most bang for their buck,” said Bury.
At the close of the session Peter Strauss took the lectern urging the council, Music Festival and the city population at large to see the vision of building an international-caliber outdoor theater. Challenging Ojai to live up to its image as an arts community, he imploring the city to build a “beautiful bowl” which would attract world-class music, theater and dance to the Ojai Valley. Strauss expressed the “build it and they will come” theme which was heard several times during the evening. He proposed that “we as a community have to accept the risk,” and promised that he as an individual will do “everything within my power” to raise money for the completion and success of the bowl project. Strauss also emphasized the business potential of the bowl to bring income to the city of Ojai, stating that it should be a profitable venture.
Kersnar expressed his opinion, saying, “I always thought that the argument of the bowl as a business proposition was weak,” but the consensus among the council members was that the bowl is an indelible part of Ojai which has reached a point where it must be rebuilt. To fully utilize the funds already spent on the design phase and to guarantee the pledge support the project must be completed before the 2011 Music Festival.
Mayor Steve Olsen voiced his approval stating that he felt comfortable with the projected 30 percent figure offered for the reserve fund. He said that he has always thought that “the reserve policy can be a flexible number” and that completion of a worthwhile community project outweighs the importance of adhering to the strict 50 percent policy which the council had set for its reserve funding.
“The opportunities outweigh the risks and I want to go forward,” said Horgan. Clapp also voiced her enthusiastic approval for the project, but again justified last week’s stall with the responsibility to her constituents for a full financial impact report.
With Councilwoman Carol Smith nodding enthusiastically, reminding the council that events at the bowl would bring tourism to Ojai and that the money that comes from T.O.T. (transient occupancy tax) is what the city needs for income, the council came to a unanimous vote to award the building contract. With the 4-0 vote to award the construction contract the house burst into applause and shouts.
The vote on the proposed Music Festival lease has been postponed for 30 days to give council members time to study the provisions of the lease, although the festival claims to be willing to sign it immediately. As it is currently proposed, it gives an unprecedented control of a city-owned property to a private entity. The proposed lease of Libbey Bowl to the Music Festival provides a 99-year lease at a rate of $1 per each year of the term. The festival would have 25 days per year lease of the bowl. The June Music Festival would account for a 14-day block with 11 more days reserved annually. The city would also agree to refrain from booking any classical music acts into Libbey Bowl during the 30 days prior and after the Musical Festival dates.
Although the review of the proposed lease was postponed, the City Council meeting erupted in cheers, hugs and handshakes at the unanimous vote to award the construction contract. Funds will be released immediately by the Ojai Service Foundation as a down payment on the bowl construction.
Cho-Wagner, of the Libbey Bowl project, wants everyone to know that there is still time to donate money to the project and receive an engraved brick or seat for the donation. Interested parties can find more information at the Libbeybowl.org web site.