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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Where is funding coming from for all this cultural development?

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A $45 million makeover of the Reed Whipple Cultural Center was recently announced.

Everything’s good and all the smiles are firmly in place, but with three large cultural projects on Downtown’s development scene, paint is likely to be spilled in the coming months. The issue at hand is this: Where’s all the money going to come from?

That question arose after last week’s announcements of two projects seeking Downtown cultural cache and cash: a $45 million makeover of the Reed Whipple Cultural Center at 821 Las Vegas Boulevard North and the $29 million Modern Contemporary Art Museum on Charleston Boulevard near Main Street.

Then there’s the one we haven’t heard much about in recent months: the effort to raise millions to restore the Huntridge Theatre at Maryland Parkway and Charleston to a theater and live performance venue (with classrooms and a food/beverage outlet). Sources tell me the leaders of the Huntridge plan are confident they will have the $4 million reportedly needed to move ahead by the end of the year. But that’s just the beginning. The project is supposed to cost about $10 million more.

The Reed Whipple Cultural Center needs money, too, for renovations and construction. In a Las Vegas Sun story last week, board members said they had reached 50 percent of their capital fundraising goal.

Taken together, the three projects—Reed Whipple, the Huntridge and the Modern—are seeking some $58 million from donations, grants and other sources. Mind you, these developers aren’t building or renovating money-raking casinos, but places for people to gaze at art, watch a Shakespeare performance or take in a rock concert. They’re betting support for Downtown’s redevelopment and the arts has grown to the point that people will give to ventures aiming to improve the city’s cultural landscape.

But convincing people to do that in a still-shaky economy (or even in the best of times) requires new strategies, says Patrick Duffy, board president of the Las Vegas Art Museum, which closed due to the economy in 2009. Duffy said the three projects can all make their goals, “but only with total community reach.”

Duffy’s concern is that the same donors are getting hit upon repeatedly.

“They need to be inclusive, not exclusive,” Duffy said. “Too many organizations reach for the same generous [people]. We need to research, focus and open up to the generation that will take these organizations forward into the next 25 to 50 years—community of the many, not of the few.”

In many ways, the egalitarian economy that drew so many to Las Vegas over the decades is disappearing. The middle class here is shrinking, as it is around the country. Some cocktail waitresses might still be able to afford a mortgage, but their numbers have dwindled.

At the same time, multi-million-dollar salaries for casino executives are, by now, old news. So when lower-tier Zappos employees or anyone striving to reach the middle class gets a flier in the mail asking for $50, $100 or $250, it’s easy to imagine them thinking: “On my salary? Let some rich guy do it; $250 million to Steve Wynn is pocket change.”

As much as people may want to see these plans succeed, as hopeful as they may be that the cultural face of Downtown is turning, many just can’t afford to give.

Still, Duffy said he “firmly believes” each of these projects can raise the money needed to build or renovate.

But then what?

One industry standard for a successful cultural institution is that ticket sales make up 75 percent of its budget. The rest has to come from continual fundraising, grant-writing campaigns, bake sales and charity events.

It’s doable—by all of us. But it will be up to those charged with getting these places built to convince us of that.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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