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Raising private funds seen as key to city’s new Central Library

Monday, May 17, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Pressure for private fund-raising for Austin’s major art and civic venues continues to grow, and grow more daunting, as the city moves forward with major projects.


The $110 million Long Center for the Performing Arts remains the largest public-private partnership project in Austin that has seen success, seeded in part by a $23 million gift from Joe and Teresa Lozano Long and a 10-year fund-raising campaign that struggled under the burden of the tech bust.


The center’s fund-raising efforts, with its highs and lulls, point to the challenge that comes with Austin’s move from college town to major city. Even as the city presses more than 1 million people, Austin lacks menu amenities that are hallmarks of a large city: a major arts district; a zoo; and destination Central Library.


Over the last year, the clamor for public-private partnerships has grown. Almost every major project on the drawing board right now – from Waller Creek to the downtown open space plan to the creation of a downtown arts district – has mentioned some type of major fund-raising effort to “make things work.”


Not the least of these, and the one longest in the chute, would be the new Central Library. Four years after voters approved $90 million bonds, the fundraising effort of the Austin Library Foundation and Friends of the Library has yet to be launched, as the foundation awaits library elevations.


The Central Library, which is expected to be incorporated in the Seaholm District redevelopment, is slated to open in 2014. Construction will produce a 250,000 square foot building, of which 170,000 square feet should be ready for use on opening day and another 80,000 square feet will remain shell space in anticipation of future expansion.


“We don’t know to what extent we will be able to help yet because we’ve yet to see the design of the building,” said Tim Staley of the Austin Library Foundation. “We do expect there will be a significant campaign, millions of dollars, but we don’t know yet, and we won’t know exactly the ways in which private support can help until we have a better look at the library.”


The Friends of the Library likely will launch a campaign in the range of $15 to $20 million sometime around the end of the year, when architect Lake-Flato provides some specifics on the design and schematics of the building.


The original library budget in the 2006 bond issue was cut from $107 million to $90 million by the citizens’ bond advisory committee. At the time, it was understood the Friends would play the role of paying for some portion of the library’s cost, at least as it came to the FFE – furniture, fixtures and equipment – that it would take to get the building open.


“The architect’s contract was not just to gather a bunch of input on the library design,” said John Gillum, the library’s facilities planning manager. “We also asked them to do four fund-raising events when the Foundation began its efforts. We said, ‘We need you to be there and to talk about your design.’ ”


In Austin, even a fund-raising campaign in the $20 million ballpark is a major task. J.J. Baskin, who works in development and served on the Friends board for a decade, said part of the problem is Austin’s history. For many years, Austin was a sleepy college town. It wasn’t difficult for city leaders to hold out their hands to the university and expect the University of Texas to foot the bill.


“When you’re talking about what is the fundraising capacity of the community – the people you can ask, the people who can give – one of the challenges that Austin faced back as far as the ‘70s was that the bench wasn’t that deep,” Baskin said. “There just weren’t a whole lot of people you could turn and go to for the big donations. To put that in perspective, the Longs’ gift, at the time they gave it, was the largest gift that had ever been made in the city.”


Now, given the high growth of the city, the pressure for better and higher profile venues for the arts is growing. Baskin calls the construction of space for the opera and ballet in recent years “doing it on steroids.”


“Really, we’ve had a lot of fundraising happen in pretty short order in  comparison, when you look at cities like Houston, where you had a lot more Fortune 500 companies and people working on it for 80 years,” Baskin said.


The other stumbling block, both Baskin and Staley acknowledge, is that the concept of subsidizing public space such as parks or libraries is a relatively new concept. When it comes to stepping up to underwrite central library costs, the amounts have ranged from the $85 million that Microsoft billionaires could pour into the Seattle library down to no public support at all in Salt Lake City.


Staley expects the Austin campaign to be in the range of the Minneapolis central library project, which set a fund-raising goal of around $16.5 million.


“It’s a shift, it’s definitely a shift,” Staley said. “For the first time, we’re expecting private investment to support certain public projects.”


On top of that, Council has been notoriously stingy about library operations and hours in recent budgets, feeling no hesitation to cut days of service at library branches. Part of the fund-raising effort by the Friends is expected to cover the operating costs of the new Central Library, which was a major concern of then-City Manager Toby Futrell.


The John Henry Faulk branch on Guadalupe, by the way, is expected to be absorbed by the Austin History Center. While the block it sits on is prime downtown real estate, its location is hampered by its place within the Capital View Corridors, which were created after the original Central library was built.


With so many new demands on private money, the road is tougher for the library, as well as those who support the open space plan or Waller Creek trails. Jennifer Houlihan, development officer at the Long Center, said the whole model for institutional fund-raising is shifting with new generations of donors.


“When it comes to giving, I think there’s been a big change in the donor personality,” Houlihan said. “It used to be, back in the day, a donor would write a check and say, ‘Here you go, honey, put it where you think it will do the most good.’ It’s been years since I heard something like that.”


Attracting the new generation of donors – and not just those with the big checkbooks – means fresh ideas, such as bringing in a classical pianist who composes and plays on the iPad, Houlihan said. It means creating a destination where a grateful, but harried, mom can simply sit on a patio and have a glass of wine with a friend and enjoy the music, even without stepping inside the theater.


“We have to rethink the concept of the performing arts center if we want to capture the new donor. Today we’re rethinking who is the philanthropist,” Houlihan said. “It could be anybody.”


The Austin Community Foundation campaign, “I live here. I give here.” is one example of Austin charity recognizing the need to cultivate new giving in the community in ways that match money with interest. These days, more than ever, the donor wants to be tied to a project that bears fruit, Houlihan said.

Staley said the Foundation will spend a lot of time thinking about the new library’s needs against the fund-raising capacity of the community, trying to drill down to the type of fund-raising options that make sense. That could range from smaller gift to larger naming options for various facilities in the new library, Staley said.

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