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July 24, 2024

3 area venues — but not OSF — funded in Legislature’s ‘Christmas tree bill’

The Historic Ashland Armory at 208 Oak St. as captured by Google Street View in April 2019. The armory is scheduled to receive $136,133 in state grant money from the Legislature's end-of-session 'Christmas tree bill.' Map data ©2023 Google
August 6, 2023

Historic Ashland Armory, Craterian, Britt Festival allocated funding

By Shaun Hall, Rogue Valley Times

This year’s $1.1 billion end-of-session bill, known as a Christmas tree bill and passed in June by the Oregon Legislature, contained grants for three relatively small entertainment venues in Jackson County but offered nothing for the larger Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The funding, intended to help the venues recover from the pandemic, were among a slew of grants allocated to small theaters and performance halls across the state, although some other big arts organizations missed out, including the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Symphony.

The measure, which as of Sunday was still awaiting the signature of Gov. Tina Kotek, was contained in Senate Bill 5506, which allocated funding to causes ranging from $450 million for state employee compensation increases to $100,000 so the state can study the pros and cons of decriminalizing prostitution (the latter item, funding for a study decriminalizing prostitution, was vetoed by the governor).

The end-of-session measure is known as a Christmas tree bill because of the ornaments hung on it and the gifts found under it. The goodies this year included $136,133 for the Historic Ashland Armory; $112,128 for the Craterian Performance Company; and $67,151 for the Britt Festival Pavilion. But OSF, initially proposed to receive $5.1 million, got coal in its stocking.

“Performance venues, because of COVID primarily, are truly challenged right now,” state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said at a July 18 town hall meeting at the Ashland library. “And none more than the festival because layered on top of that were … more difficulties, a whole number of things.”

Leaders on the Legislature’s powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee met behind closed doors to decide allocations in the bill.

“My sense is that (legislative fiscal office) staff told the co-chairs, ‘You know what, the performance venues did really well in the federal COVID legislation,’” Golden said. “And they ended up giving $5 million collectively to all these smaller venues but nothing to the larger venues on the list. So the festival didn’t get anything.”

State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, was happy that the smaller venues at least got some funding.

“We’re grateful for that,” she said last week in a telephone interview.

Marsh originally had sponsored House Bill 2459, a $50 million measure to fund venues big and small. That proposal passed 9-1, with one abstention, out of the House Economic Development and Small Business Committee, only to die in the Joint Ways and Means Committee. Ways and Means later partially resurrected the proposal with the Christmas tree bill, although it cut funding for the smaller venues by half of what Marsh and her fellow co-sponsors had originally suggested.

“The argument from the art community is, ‘We’re still coming out of the pandemic,’” Marsh said. “That argument didn’t sway enough (legislators). We knew it was a long shot.”

Other needs took priority, according to Marsh.

“The good news is, there was a really robust conversation about the arts,” she said. “Arts enrich us. We need food and shelter and we also need to be inspired. We need to have our spirits lifted.”

Alan DeBoer, a former state senator and current co-owner of the Historic Ashland Armory, said he didn’t ask for help from the Legislature and was surprised to learn about the armory outlay. He heard about the funding from Marsh late in the legislative session, when she gave an update to chamber of commerce members.

“I had no idea of the funding until Pam Marsh mentioned it,” he said. “Nobody at the armory knew anything about it.”

The armory is now used as a performance venue, with upcoming events scheduled to include a rapper, a drag show and a guitarist.

“The armory’s almost an act of love,” DeBoer said. “It does not make any money.”

He isn’t sure how he’ll spend the grant.

“Let’s just say I’ll decide when I actually get the check,” he said.

DeBoer, who served in the Legislature from 2017-19 and as a mayor of Ashland from 2002-2004, said he didn’t care for the secretive process that produces the end-of-session Christmas tree bills.

“It comes with no oversight, no public input, and is totally at the whim of the co-chairs of Ways and Means,” he said. “Some of it’s almost bribery. And it’s a secret to the last day.”

Abby McKee, president and CEO of the Britt Music & Arts Festival, said in a written statement Wednesday that her organization would use the state funding to underwrite pandemic recovery costs while rebuilding revenue streams. She said that Britt serves about 75,000 patrons with in-person arts events and that others use the Britt park and venue daily.

“We’re incredibly grateful to the Oregon Legislature for making this crucial investment in our Arts and Entertainment sector,” she wrote.

McKee said the sector was the first to shut down and the last to reopen in Oregon, and that the state had the longest shutdown in the nation.

“Restarting operations after 18 months required massive investments, and our industry has seen the same increased costs as everywhere else — but we are having to meet those costs having lost a year and a half of revenue,” McKee said.

Among those submitting written testimony for the House bill in its original form was Stephen McCandless, executive director for Craterian Performances. He wrote in January about economic and societal benefits of entertainment programs and, like McKee, said costs were up while revenue was down, adding that those trends had slowed.

“There is no way to know how long this recovery will take, but what is known is that we need help to get there,” he wrote.

Also writing to the Legislature were Octavio Solis and Charlotte Lin, members of the OSF board of directors.

Solis wrote in February that the pandemic and the Labor Day fires of 2020 had devastated the community.

“Patrons and attendees have been slow to return to in-person gatherings, and company members with COVID-19 have impacted our performances,” he said.

Solis said the festival’s endowment fund was tapped to ensure that the 2023 season continued as planned, but that the stock market had taken a huge bite out of the fund’s market value. He urged “the largest funding possible for the survival of our institution,” stating that merchants and small businesses depend on the festival.

Lin wrote that the festival in 2020 had just opened an 11-show season and had spent about half of its $44 million budget when the pandemic struck, leading to $7 million in ticket refunds, 829 performance cancellations and 500 layoffs. Then the Almeda Fire hit later that year, taking out 2,500 homes and 600 businesses in the valley.

“The community is in dire straits,” she said.

The festival in 2020-21 took in $19 million in state and federal emergency aid, according to Lin.

“But it turns out OSF had operated with a structural deficit for years,” she said. “Expenses had increased but revenue did not increase proportionately, in fact had decreased gradually due to smoke and wildfire with their impact on tourism, including audiences.”

Lin said the festival had reduced expenses and had launched a multi-year fundraising campaign to which she was donating $1 million.

Since then, the festival has hired a new interim executive director and new artistic director and announced that it had raised $2.7 million to kick off its current season, with an additional goal of raising $7.3 million by the end of October to complete its season. The festival announced this week that the season was indeed saved, through a combination of successful fundraising and robust ticket sales, coupled with support from the community and the festival board of directors.

Tyler Hokama, executive director for the festival, said on Thursday that the show would go on, despite the lack of funding from the Legislature.

“Of course, like the other venues that were cut from the final cultural spending bill, we were disappointed,” Hokama wrote in an emailed reply for comment. “We are happy that smaller organizations did receive funds, because we believe it is critical, especially in these challenging economic times for all theatres, that our elected leaders find ways to support the arts.”

Hokama also addressed the festival’s financial future.

“We are working on implementing a sustainable business model that is not overly reliant on one area, so receiving funds from the legislature is always helpful and welcomed, but it won’t be the determining factor of our financial health long-term.”

Also funded under the bill were two venues in Josephine County: $30,380 for the Historic Rogue Theatre and $14,051 for the Barnstormer’s Theatre. 

The Senate bill was signed by the Senate president June 27, while the speaker of the House signed it July 6, giving Gov. Tina Kotek 30 days to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without her signature.

Reach Rogue Valley Times outdoors and environmental reporter Shaun Hall at 458-225-7179 or shall@rv-times.com. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Aug. 7: Information added about a veto by the governor of a portion of the funding in the “Christmas tree” bill.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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