A Wisconsin Mayor Predicts Nonprofit Will Flop in His Own City

Print Share on LinkedIn More

May 25, 2011; Source: Capitol Times | Paul Soglin is now the three-time mayor of Madison, Wisc., unseating a two-term incumbent to take back City Hall. In his second term, the Soglin helped save the old Madison Civic Center, redeveloping it as the Overture Center. But in his two-term absence, the City Council reorganized Overture as a nonprofit, which will take control next year.

While campaigning, Soglin had concerns about the City Council plan, but on taking office, he has been a bit more outspoken. He announced that the Overture Center will “crash and burn” once the nonprofit takes over. "The best I can do is wait for this to collapse and then just hope that the problem doesn't take down the rest of city government," the mayor predicted.

The Council wasn’t particularly happy to hear the mayor essentially announcing to potential philanthropic and charitable partners that the project was a non-starter. City Council President Lauren Cnare countered Soglin’s pessimism saying, “The council has made a decision. We’ve got to give it a chance.”

Another councilman said that the mayor’s statement “really causes damage to fundraising efforts at a critical stage.” Overture has a $28.6 million debt to deal with, and according its plan, it will have a new executive director, as the interim director is leaving.

It is surprising, however, that the Council feels blindsided by Soglin’s comments. In his personal blog from October 2010, while out of office, Soglin asked, “Why should city residents be coerced into [an] expensive bailout of [the] Overture Center?” At the time, he was criticizing continued public ownership of the center, but his arguments about the cost of saving the center and the “opulence” of the facility seem to be consistent with his recent critique.

Soglin now says that the city has a $28 million budget deficit and is on the hook for a $2 million a year subsidy to the future nonprofit Overture, a subsidy it can’t afford, especially with the likelihood of state budget cuts under conservative Republican governor Scott Walker.

In a way, Soglin is raising a question about priorities for charitable giving. If donors give to Overture, what other community needs might not get the charitable and philanthropic support they need? However, he has certainly put a bit of a kibosh on Overture fundraising. As the Capitol Times noted, “It might be possible for Paul Soglin to strike a grimmer tone on . . . Overture's current outlook. I'm just not sure how.” —Rick Cohen