Thursday, September 27, 2012
By Kit Stolz
After a 75-minute discussion Tuesday, a divided Ojai City Council voted to extend an existing agreement with the nonprofit group responsible for managing Libbey Bowl, even though in its first year it operated at a substantial loss.
According to city estimates, the foundation last year lost $60,000 on the bowl. Because an anonymous donor pays the $45,000 salary of the manager of Libbey Bowl, Beth Sutherland, the foundation’s loss was limited to $15,000, for expenses including insurance and website development.
Part of the operating agreement between the Foundation and the city includes establishing a maintenance fund to pay for long-term expenses associated with the Bowl’s upkeep. The city’s Public Works Department estimates this cost at $25,000 a year.
“The idea of the maintenance fund is to make the bowl as self-sustaining as possible,” said Steve McClary, assistant city manager. “For now the taxpayer funds the routine maintenance of the Bowl just as they do to maintain Sarzotti Park or Soule Park. When the Public Works crew is out there pressure washing, we’re not charging it to the Libbey Bowl Foundation.”
Because the Foundation itself is running in the red, it has yet to contribute towards the long-term maintenance of the Bowl.
This year, the Foundation has booked only one for-profit event in the Bowl, a Leo Kottke concert scheduled for Oct. 13. The other events that have taken place this year are “legacy” events that have separate deals with the city, such as the Ojai Music Festival, or they were nonprofit events which do not pay toward the maintenance fee.
“At the time last year, we thought there would be enough commercial events with a $2–per-seat user fee, to cover that ($25,000),” City Manager Robert Clark explained. “What we didn’t anticipate is that many events that you think of as commercial events are really put on by nonprofits.”
Sutherland, who has managed the Bowl for a year, said that before its extensive renovation, the Bowl was operated on a strictly nonprofit basis for community groups.
“The Libbey Bowl Foundation is operating at an incredible disadvantage for this year,” she said. “I’m already booking for 2013, but it’s going to take time to build a reputation and to build relationships with the big commercial producers and agents.”
Sutherland also hopes to book more in the way of multi-day festivals into Libbey Bowl to help build ticket sales.
A proposal to extend the operating agreement included a new $1-per-ticket maintenance fee to be charged on all tickets costing more than $15, including nonprofit shows.
Councilwoman Carlon Strobel expressed concern that the city’s estimate of $25,000 for long-term maintenance was low, because it didn’t take into account upkeep on seats and new drains installed as part of the Bowl’s renovation. She suggested a 20 percent across-the-board levy on all tickets sales and concessions, including sales of alcohol.
After an inconclusive discussion, Councilwoman Sue Horgan moved to extend the agreement to the end of 2013, as originally suggested by the city manager, with the new $1 fee added. The council also asked the Foundation to work with city staff to develop a business plan, to be reconsidered with the agreement in six months.
“What we have with the Libbey Bowl Foundation is an operator, who is being paid by someone else, to book the facility,” Horgan said at the meeting. “If we don’t renew this agreement, what we will end up with is nobody doing anything, unless the city puts out an investment to fund these activities, and I don’t think we’re in a position to do that.”
The council agreed to the motion by a 3-2 vote, with Clapp and Strobel voting in opposition.