What's wrong with this picture?

Novato | May 12, 2016 |

Don’t you get the impression from this picture (taken in early 2016) that the banner means the Novato Theater will finally open in 2016? Well, apparently that ain’t happening, folks. Now the theater backers are talking about 2017. IF more money is raised. My B.S. detector is starting to go off again on this project.

I’ve been hearing the “build it and they will come” song and dance for years. In 2011, I attended an event to attract money to Novato Screensavers, LLC, an entity (since abandoned) created to help finance the project. The budget then was $3 million, which included months of operating expenses.

I can take you into the weeds on this issue, and there are a lot of weeds. But I’ll concentrate on a few obvious and salient points.

In 2013, Novato Patch editor Karina Ioffee (this is when Patch had an accredited journalist reporting locally) did a story on the theater and how past donations had been doled out to other non-profits when a previous effort to resurrect the theater failed. In that story, the latest effort had raised an estimated $650,000 and the overall budget was $3.5 million.

Currently, the theater group says it has $850,000 in donations and pledges. The City of Novato has contributed $1 million more. The overall budget has grown to $4.7 million. Let’s concentrate on that $850,000 number. So from 2013 to now, the group has raised about $200,000. In 2014, the group’s board members pledged $180,000, this per the group’s own historical timeline.

If I’m doing the math correctly, folks, this means that in the past three years the group has netted a measly $20,000 in donations (not counting the insider money). And how much of that is “pledges,” whatever that means. Sounds like it could include promises, rather than hard dollars, to me.

I think it’s a stretch to think that this project will attract construction financing to bridge the tremendous gap (almost $3 million). Nobody but a hard-money lender with personal recourse would touch this deal. Of course, if the city steps in to effectively co-sign, financing could conceivably happen, but then the city would have to put skin in the game and secure an equity stake in the project. That means the citizens of Novato will be on the hook. This on top of the $1 million they have already committed, and that doesn't include past expenditures by the city during previous failed efforts to revive the theater.

I’m no stranger to longshots. I opened a bookstore, for chrissakes. However, I did it on my own dime. And I didn’t ask the taxpayers to foot the bill. What’s really sad is that the local news organizations, especially the Marin I-J and the Novato Advance, aren’t asking any hard questions. They’re running puff pieces on ground-breaking ceremonies.

We need more serious scrutiny of this project to vet the backers’ pie-in-the-sky projections and inform taxpayers and prospective donors. A theater in downtown Novato would be nice, but at what price?

UPDATE 8/1/16:
By now you've probably heard that the county just approved another $150,000 for this project after already ponying up $150,000 in 2012. If you haven't already noticed, they pretty much razed the existing theater (so much for preservation efforts) and are now installing structural steel, which is an expensive component of construction. This action contradicts a statement on county supervisor Judy Arnold's website (under 2012 Accomplishments): "Worked with the Novato Theater Board to complete the structural & engineering report which indicated the building is sound seismically and structurally and needs only minor shearing." Here's the link: www.judyarnold.com/Highlights_2012

Obviously this report was wrong and the structure needed a whole lot more than "minor shearing" That's probably a big part of the reason the budget has ballooned to $4.7 million (for now; I'm sure it's headed even higher).  Funny how the July 19 county report for the additional $150,000 doesn't go into these details.

Why isn't the Novato Advance or the Marin I-J asking questions about these things?

UPDATE 6/23/17:
Halfway through 2017 and still no Novato Theater. See what happens when you count your chickens before they hatch and erect a huge banner saying Coming in 2016! Waste of money on the banner alone.

So now the backers claim they have spent $1.5 million, mostly on structural work, this per a story in the Marin I-J. The story goes on to say that $2.5 million is needed to finish, but the lead paragraph has the total price now at $4.5 million.

Last time I checked, $1.5 million plus $2.5 million equals $4 million. What about the $500,000 difference? Pennies from Heaven? (To go along with previous Build it and They Will Come malarkey.)

Why doesn’t the I-J ask about these discrepancies? Why don’t they ask why the project has suddenly dropped from a reported cost of $4.7 million to $4.5 million? This is Journalism 101, folks. Hell, it’s not even journalism; it’s common sense!

Another interesting tidbit: On 5/16/17, Executive Director Christina Stroeh announced she was stepping down. On 5/18/17, the Buck Family Fund of the Marin Community announced a $250,000 grant to the theater. Hmmmm. Was this a vote of no-confidence in the previous leadership? And the I-J reported that the project received $500,000 from an anonymous donor on 6/14/17. Was all this money on the sidelines waiting to jump in?

Of course, the I-J is too wimpy to ask these questions and get a consistent accounting of the project. In fact a cheerleading editorial extolling the virtues of the project by the I-J on 6/21/17 had the total cost again at $4.7 million. Are you kidding me?

Whatever happens from here on out, it is highly unlikely that the Novato Theater will open its doors in 2017.

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