UPDATE (June 3, 2019, 3:29 p.m. PT) – For all Portland’s fantastically creative ways to have fun, the city’s publicly funded arts programs stand among the most beloved ways for citizens to interact with the arts. And the Bureau of Parks and Recreation has always shouldered a sizable share of that work.
From free outdoor concerts to summer arts camps to low-cost music, dance and fine art instruction, it’s hard to beat what community centers and other parks properties have to offer.
But among the menu of arts programs, arguably the best value can be found at three specialized and historic facilities: the Multnomah Arts Center (MAC), the Community Music Center (CMC) and the Laurelhurst Dance Studio.
Each has its own origin story and menu of services. Laurelhurst is small but offers a wide range of styles, from ballroom to hip-hop, jazz, tap and ballet. The Community Music Center delivers a comprehensive range of instrumental and vocal lessons, instrument rentals, and ensembles. The Multnomah Arts Center is a large and diverse building filled with room after room of woodworking shops, music classes, studios for drawing and painting, dance studios, art galleries, jewelry studios, weaving equipment, performance space and more.
All three are located in relatively affluent neighborhoods, but cash-conscious Portlanders come from all over to use them.
When commissioners approved the city budget passed last week, they decided Portland can no longer afford its relationship with this trio — at least, not in their current forms, leaving the future much less clear.
The first tipoff was Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed city budget, which included sizable, one-time appropriations for MAC and CMC.
The Parks Bureau budget is deep in the red. Its woes have been debated at several spring budget hearings, including a May 23 session at which Commissioner Amanda Fritz said, “Calling the choices difficult is like calling childbirth uncomfortable. This is a very sad parks budget, and still it is necessary.”
The bureau, which recently was returned to Commissioner Nick Fish’s portfolio, had to make $6.3 million in cuts this year, with 50 bureau workers losing their jobs.
City observers trace the overruns to three issues:
- Many parks facilities — including but not limited to MAC and CMC — have substantial deferred maintenance needs, often including seismic upgrades.
- A few years ago, the union representing parks workers waged a battle to require the bureau to reclassify some of its temporary workers as full-time. The union won, and the subsequent changes added several million dollars to payroll and benefits.
- Finally, the city’s growing population on the east side of town is crying out for more parity in parks facilities. The bureau has been mindful of prioritizing those needs.
As the budget ax fell, MAC and the Laurelhurst studio were among the casualties, with the city aiming to sunset general fund payments for those two programs within the next fiscal year if possible. CMC is not slated to lose its general fund at this time.
The end of general fund dollars is not a death sentence. Laurelhurst likely stands to see the steepest loss in services. Parks-sponsored dance classes will be discontinued.
“The plan is preserve the space for the arts by making it available to another dance/arts entity for leasing,” said Soo Pak, the bureau’s arts, culture and special events manager.
In recent months, lease rates for the studio have been offered somewhat below market rate.
MAC and CMC have something of a head start, in that they both already have their own nonprofit boards. The city’s one-time appropriations this year are aimed at helping both facilities retool their operations and find new revenue streams.
Pak said CMC “will remain publicly-owned, and service levels will remain largely the same.”
As for MAC, executive director Michael Walsh is working on new ways to continue its work providing great arts education, “with an increased emphasis on equity-focused programs that prioritizes teen, culturally diverse, and low-income populations.”
MAC’s nonprofit arm is strategizing a plan to increase its participation in the parks bureau’s Free Lunch + Play program — a delivery system for both kids activities and essential food aid. The center has also formed a partnership with the Somali American Coalition of Oregon that’s in its first year. The scholarship and community engagement components might make MAC eligible for some different forms of public funding and sponsorship.
“It is too early to know exactly how this project will unfold,” Walsh said. “But we expect to begin planning with [parks] leadership in the coming months. Knowing there is no simple solution to make this happen in just one year, we are also encouraged that Council directed parks to request an additional half-year bridge funding for fiscal year 2020-21.” The hope is that MAC could be in the black for direct costs starting in 2021.
Walsh said he’s “very optimistic” that MAC can get to the business plan it needs.
The budget reductions passed as part of a complete city budget package that gained support from the entire council, except for Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. Some mentioned the importance of critical arts services at community centers all over the city.
Several commissioners expressed a hope that parks could find a more sustainable model that might avoid painful showdowns in future budget cycles. Commissioner Nick Fish committed to looking at “different models in structure and funding that perhaps allow us to get out of this vicious cycle.”
Portland Parks goes to bat every budget season, alongside the Police Bureau, street repairs and homeless services, often relegated to a lower priority.
Fish, along with Mayor Ted Wheeler, has discussed a revenue model similar to what’s practiced in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Seattle: a dedicated parks district that would allow the Revenue Bureau to channel tax money for parks directly into the parks budget, instead of into the general fund.
“As commissioner in charge,” Fish said, “I’m finished. We cannot continue to have these conversations with the community. They’re too discouraging, they’re not fair, and there is a better way.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect which arts programs are losing general funds within the next fiscal year.