Fighting off the wolves

I wish that I could give you some good news about the City Auditorium. I'd like to report that City Council has finally recognized it for what it is: a precious, irreplaceable asset, beloved by the community, well worth fixing up. I wish that I could tell you that the nonprofit community has joined with the user community to craft an enduring and viable plan for the magnificent old pile of bricks.

Yup, it'd be great to write that story, but that's not what's happening.

For the last few months, the City Auditorium has been in play. Council has made it clear that they simply won't spend the money to fix it up, and a couple of council members have even suggested that they'd be happy to turn it over to a non-profit user for a buck a year. The non-profit in question would then fix it up for its own use, and maybe lease it out to other users from time to time. Lost of perfectly well-meaning, even commendably civic-minded folks, see this as the only feasible solution to the "problem" of the City Aud.

Let's be clear; the only problem surrounding the auditorium is the City's continuing unwillingness to maintain it. That's why it needs a major renovation; that's why, although it's heavily used, it's scarcely used as intensively, or as profitably, as it should be. And it's truly bizarre that, while Council contemplates putting $3.6 million annually into a Convention Center (for which public funding has been twice rejected by popular vote), they won't put a nickel into the Auditorium.

Think about it: Here's a building, funded and erected by public vote, and devoted to public uses for three-quarters of a century, which may be turned over [for free!] to a private organization. It's a perfect demonstration of our local power structure's inherent elitism, and barely concealed contempt for the rest of us -- the uncultured, unruly masses.

Even though Council has refused to properly maintain the Auditorium, it's heavily used, as it always has been. Last year, the facility was in use for 314 days, including 272 multi-event days. There were 51 dark days, most of them in the summer months, when the lack of air conditioning discourages most users. And who were the users? Anyone and everyone: from American Arts for Youth to 50 Cent, from Jars of Clay to Alcoholics Anonymous, from Right to Life to the Democratic Party. In other words, a real cross-section of the community.

And this is the strength of our wonderful municipal auditorium, that it has always been open to all, the grand stage of our city's long history. Had you been there in the '30s, you could have gone to a square dance, listened to Herbert Hoover address the Jaycees, met Jack Dempsey, seen Sally Rand do her infamous fan dance, and been uplifted by the fiery evangelist Aimee Semple Macpherson.

In the '40s, you could have watched as automobile visionary Preston Tucker unveiled the revolutionary Tucker Torpedo to a slightly nonplussed crowd of car enthusiasts.

And in the '50s, you could have joined me to hear Bill Haley & His Comets, the first white boy rock 'n' roll band.

But if the Auditorium is slyly transferred to private use, all of that will end. Oh, we can expect the usual soothing rhetoric -- it's a private-public partnership, the auditorium will be renovated and upgraded, the user community will support it 100 percent, blah blah blah. T'ain't so. It'll become an exclusive performing arts venue, unavailable to 90 percent of existing users.

The fact is, the Auditorium no longer suits the visions of the downtown power people. They want lofts, concerts, expensive restaurants, hotels and a convention center. They want a prosperous, upper-class downtown, devoted to the profitable recreations of the few. Cat shows, model railroad clubs and high school graduations attract, well, the wrong sort of people. Why, they probably eat at Denny's and shop at Wal-Mart! How appalling!

So what are we gonna do? Just sit still and let 'em roll over us? I don't think so. A group of us who treasure the Auditorium are hosting a public meeting to devise a plan of action at the City Aud at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 21. There'll be entertainment, opportunities to volunteer, and a short program. This is our opportunity to send a message. The wolves are circling -- we need to show up and fight 'em off. We're inviting the mayor and Council. If there are hundreds of us there, you can be sure they'll listen.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to help with the event, e-mail me. We've booked the date, and we've got a lot to do. This may be our last, and only, chance to stop this takeover.

To put it bluntly: This is not a drill.

See you there.



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