A conversation with Bob Balsman of the Longmont Performing Arts Initiative and Longmont City Councilman Tim Waters
By Peter Alexander May 25 at 4:35 p.m.
Members and advocates of the Longmont arts community have proposed a new Performing Arts Center for the city, to be built in conjunction with a Convention and Events Center. With the support of Visit Longmont and the City of Longmont, private funds were raised for a feasibility study conducted by Johnson Consulting, a real estate and consulting firm with experience in the planning of performance venues. Their feasibility study was recently submitted to and accepted by the Longmont City Council. If carried through, this project would have enormous impact on performing arts organizations and audiences in Longmont and throughout Boulder County.
To clarify some of the questions surrounding the project, I sat down—virtually—with Bob Balsman, president of the Longmont Performing Arts Initiative (LPAI, pronounced l’PIE) and Longmont City Councilman Tim Waters, who is one of several supporters of the project in city government. Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
Bob Balsman, you are president of LPAI, which played a role in the proposed project from the very beginning. Exactly what is LPAI?
BB: The Longmont Performing Arts Initiative is an association made up of several of Longmont’s major non-profit performing arts groups: The Centennial State Ballet, the Longmont Chorale, the Longmont Concert Band, the Longmont Symphony Orchestra, the Longmont Youth Symphony, and the Long’s Peak Chorus. Together we have hundreds of people that participate directly in the performing arts, and we all perform before thousands of people in the greater Longmont area.
Tim Waters, I assume most people reading this will know what the City Council is. But I believe politics is relatively new for you.
TW: My professional life put me at the nexus of research and leadership and policy and politics, without ever running for elective office. I turned the page from retirement into a new chapter and started attending City Council meetings so [city councilor Marcia Martin] would have somebody to process the issues with. The more I attended, the more interested I got in the issues. When Brian Bagley was elected mayor, the seat for Ward 1 opened up, and since I had been attending meetings, I thought, you know, this is kind of interesting.
Please describe the project that we’re talking about.
BB: We’re working towards the construction of a performing arts facility in Longmont. Our overall hope is to see Longmont have a new venue in the range of somewhere between 1000 and 1500 seats, and later that we would also have a smaller venue of about 500 seats.
And the plan is to combine the performing arts facility with a convention and events center?
BB: Event space is desperately needed in Longmont ever since the Plaza closed a couple of years back and now has been sold. There is no suitable space for gatherings of 200 or more people—even a large-scale wedding reception, not to mention conventions and trade shows. Visit Longmont has estimated that in the past couple of years alone they’ve lost out on 2.6 million dollars worth of business. So these are significant needs in the community.
Where do we stand now on the project?
BB: We first started work on this publicly back in 2018, I believe it was, when we spoke before City Council about the needs for such a center. Since then, members of LPAI have formed into a nonprofit, raised more than half the cost of a feasibility study. That study [performed by Johnson Consulting] has now been completed with a presentation to the City Council, so we’re looking forward to the next steps as soon as those numbers are finalized and validated by city staff.
With the two facilities together, what is the cost of the proposed facility?
BB: According to the feasibility study, that is estimated to be up to $158 million. That’s a pretty big price tag, but we were encouraged when the consultants said those were high estimates, and that they had seen quality venues constructed for 25% less.
Where will that money come from?
TW: We’ve seen the estimates of $105 to $158 million, and I think the City ought to have an investment in that. I think the private sector ought to have an investment in that. LPAI will have to organize a capital campaign to raise private sector money. But I don’t think a project like this can or should be accomplished without an investment by the city. How big a bite that will be is going to depend on a whole lot of variables. With today’s interest rates, we could probably generate $65 million or so of city revenue without having to raise taxes. It’s not simple, but there’s a way to get there.
Also, the projected site is in an opportunity zone. There may be an investor out there who would like to move some money to avoid capital gains taxes somewhere else into a project like this. The City could aggregate the land and then lease it to a developer. That could substantially lower the top-line cost, on a 30-year lease in a public-private partnership. So there are a variety of funding mechanisms to get it done.
Where is the projected site for the facility?
BB: In the feasibility study, there were five different locations that were identified, and a couple were ruled out for various reasons, including that they’re not even in the City proper right now. The prime location that was identified was in southern downtown near the First and Main intersection, what’s called the “Building Steam” area. That area was identified because of certain advantages, which include the overlap of a few different incentive zones, to help make the financing easier. And there’s also mention of transportation that’s going to be there, nearby parking that will help the facility.
What does it mean that the consultant’s reports was ‘accepted’ by the City Council?
TW: It’s a great question. We accepted the report, and tasked the staff with investigating it.
BB: That was a unanimous acceptance, and then they directed again unanimously for City staff to investigate the numbers, which means double-check everything. Then will be the next steps, how do we get from ‘OK, we know what’s recommended’ to we open the doors some time down the road.
What will those next steps look like?
TW: In terms of steps going forward, if the city is going to invest, then LPAI, in partnership with others, needs to come back with decisions that have to be made. These aren’t problems, they’re just areas where we need to make decisions, like how to we think about governance of the facility, what does the business plan look like, what are the assumptions that have to be made such as if you’re going to have a successful business plan, then you need to have this number of performances and this kind of occupancy—which gets into some of the numbers the consultants had.
On that question, who will be responsible for operating the facility?
BB: You know, one of the better models that we have seen is the formation of a nonprofit governing entity that can make all of these decisions for the facility, while another entity actually operates it.
TW: So LPAI as a nonprofit contracts with a manager—there are people out there in the business of managing these kinds of facilities, booking talent and implementing a business plan. I would assume what you do is contract a pro.
BB: None of us in LPAI operate our own venues. We can see what looks like a good decision or a bad decision, but the hands-on, day-to-day work is not something that we are accustomed to. So you have a governing body making policy decisions, LPAI or some other group, and then you have operational staff.
I know that the facility is intended not only for LPAI members and other local groups, but for touring acts as well.
BB: The intention is not to just provide the six LPAI groups with a home. To make it work economically, and to benefit the community, the intention is to bring in outside groups that right now, everybody goes out of Longmont to see because they just do not come to town. You see an awful lot of touring acts that really have nowhere to go in Longmont. For example, you could think of jazz artists like Michael Bublé or Diana Krall. Why don’t you see these people come to Longmont? Because in Longmont, the only places which are large enough to hold an audience for any performer of this caliber, to make it economical, are churches and schools.
People might ask about the school auditoria. Can they accommodate touring shows?
BB: There are some that were built for performances, but you run into many scheduling conflicts for their intended purposes, which is education. Hosting performances is not their deal, and that’s not why people pay taxes to support the schools. There’s another obstacle in that only three of them, I’m told, have dedicated tech staff. The others are operated largely by volunteers.
When you talk about touring shows, that raises the possibility of bringing in audiences from outside Longmont.
BB: I see a performing arts hall drawing from all of the surrounding communities.
That should have an economic impact on Longmont as well.
BB: In the feasibility study the consultants identified an annual impact to Longmont of, a positive impact of $8 million injected into the local economy just by having these facilities. If the project is built in phases, that’s $6.5 million per year for Phase I, and then hotel stays go up by about $21,000 some, plus sales and hotel taxes coming back to the city of about $621,000 per year. And then jobs, just Phase I, it’s an estimated 173 new jobs, or $5.6 million per year in increased earnings.
By the time you get to Phase II, you get taxes that come back from sales and hotel taxes of $872,000 per year, and 245 total jobs. That’s some pretty impressive statistics. When you first see that big price tag, you think how are we going to get to there and this is nothing but a expense, but no, it’s not just an expense. The reason that these things get built is that they are a catalyst. Yeah, it costs something to build them, but then you get an annual return back into the economy
Are there other benefits to the community that we should talk about?
TW: We currently have no place in Longmont to bring kids who might aspire for, if not a career at least a lifetime in the arts. There is no venue to take them to say ‘imagine yourself here.’ I can imagine in a performing arts facility like we’re talking about bringing world-class entertainment to town, with an educational outreach task that goes with every one of them. That expands the horizons and the education experience of all the kids in this community, in ways that we simply don’t get a chance to do right now. So, let’s imagine that we could bring Hamilton here. What an educational opportunity for every kid in this town, whether you aspire to be an artist or not, to look at American history thorough the arts. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many ways that the lives of our children can and should be enriched that simply aren’t options for us today in Longmont.
Are there misconceptions about this project that should be corrected?
TW: Right off the top is, ‘If you do this there’s a bunch of other things we can’t do. If you do this, we won’t serve well our most disadvantaged residents.’ That’s a misconception that somehow we either lack the resources or the capacity to do this. The argument, if you do this you can’t do something else, I think is a bogus argument. I think it’s a scarcity mentality and a view of the world as a zero-sum experience,. I just don’t see it that way.
I think another misconception is that that ultimately it will serve an elite constituency in Longmont. On the contrary, we have a bunch of people in this town, children in particular. This serves the entire community.
BB: I’d say it’s definitely not elitist. Longmont’s performing arts scene does include more than the LPAI organizations. We have other groups, such as Bario E’ in town that’s from Puerto Rico, for example. And other groups that represent other ethnic groups. And aside from that, none of these people are paid to do what they do. This is all a grass-root effort. What you’re looking at when you see LPAI and the other groups around town is a large-scale volunteer effort. People want to be involved in these groups. It’s certainly not just for the advantaged.
Thank you both for spending some time with me and answering my questions.
You may access the feasibility study that was presented to the Longmont City Council and other documents here.
A statement on the Longmont Center by City Council Member Marcia Martin is here.