Guest opinion: City Hall should listen to critics of arts district, not dismiss them
In her April 8 guest editorial — “The issue is not whether Park City should build the arts and culture district. The only question now is how.” — former Kimball Art Center Board Chair Maggie AbuHaidar furthers the false dichotomy that anyone criticizing the current arts and culture district plan is, therefore, also anti arts and culture. Using the same language Mayor Andy Beerman has in response to constituents’ concerns, she cites “negative voices (that) would rather the city cancel the project than problem-solve.”
Surely AbuHaidar is both frustrated by the city’s mismanagement of its relationship with KAC ever since the nonprofit abandoned plans for an architecturally significant new headquarters on Main Street and also concerned over the nonprofit’s displacement once again. But I caution her against painting dissent as negative and attempting to undermine public process by patently misrepresenting it in the same way city staff and leadership continue to.
In the same sentence in which AbuHaidar takes issue with the fact that some have dubbed Beerman & Company’s vision a “non plan,” she acknowledges “the city and its partners, including KAC, can and should provide more information about its district plans.” And this really is the crux of the issue; an open-minded but discerning group of community members overwhelmingly supports arts and culture while rightly and smartly questioning project details including budget, soils mitigation and construction phasing plans, potential to diversify our economy by way of subsidies, and its legitimacy as an arts and culture district when project spokespersons also market it as a joint affordable housing/transit/local entertainment solution. Critics even arrive to the discussion with alternative ideas. This is the very essence of healthy civic engagement.
AbuHaidar writes, “city staff has worked hard to show … different ways that funding for the district can still work.” Yet the city recently published a Funding Sources pie-chart revealing nearly 1/3 of the project’s $107.9 million budget to come from “Other Sources (TBD)” and thereby underscoring the persistent vagaries that dog the arts and culture district and prevent complete community buy-in.
To cement the validity of the current plan, AbuHaidar cites the commitments of KAC and Sundance Institute. But as the community well knows, there is nothing currently binding the “6% Sale of Land” funding source. For Parkites to accept even the intrinsic value offered by each potential anchor tenant, let alone the $6.5 million they collectively represent as buyers, we need more than handshake deals.
Any developer attempting a massive plan with so many unknowns would be met by a public demanding answers, commitments and proof much like PEG is currently contending with in regards to its PCMR base parking lot plans. We should commend those offering scrutiny when community investment and quality of life are on the line. And yet AbuHaidar and Beerman would have everyone believe citizens bringing the same critical lens to a project in which our Park City Municipal is the developer are “negative.” To dismiss informed civic engagement as negative is cheap, childish and unbecoming of Park City leadership in any role.
No one is simply saying, “No.” Despite the city and its hand-selected project ambassadors repeatedly manipulating the public to “keep the discussion high level” and “not talk about the ‘how’ of the project but focus on the ‘why,’” many of us are plainly and legitimately asking “How?” AbuHaidar even underscores the importance of the how in her closing statement, “The only question facing the city now is how to build it.” There are enumerable specific questions in this evolving discussion that demand fully formed answers, but clear understanding of the “how” is required to justify the “why” when a publicly funded project of this size is considered. Supporters of an arts and culture district’s subjective value must arrive openly and matter of factly to the complete discussion that also considers its varied objectives and quantifiable economic and opportunity costs. Any solutions lie in problem solving at the nexus of these issues.
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Time to repair the relationship