Sunday, July 30, 2006

Before There Was Money

July 30

Without money, we think everything would be better if we just had it. When we get it we see the trap we've set for ourselves and we begin to reflect on how much sweeter life was in the old days.

I'm not uncomfortable in the Fairhope that has become prosperous. I too like having at least enough money not to feel deprived. But I can't help but wonder if we haven't gone too far in planning one more expense after another.

Maybe Fairhope really did need a new library building. The old one was not that well designed for a library, and perhaps it should have had a conference room and more space for computers. But the bloated grotesquerie that looks as if it will cost over $10 million before it's done hardly seems the answer to what might have been a simple problem. I would have thought a very nice expanded library could have been erected at half that cost. But when money is available, it gets spent until it runs out. And then it seems as if there is always a need for more.

At the risk of being branded an old fogey, I question the need for enormity in all the municipal construction projects in the works. I think a new performance center will be dandy. But the $15.5 million deal that's going up near the high school fills no real need that I know of besides the need for a more convenient space for dance presentations. I expect to be impressed -- as I am when I travel to Montgomery and see the gorgeous facility erected by the Blounts for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival -- when Fairhope's new center for performing arts is completed in a year or so. It's the use of the building and the expense of utilities and maintenance that concerns me. What will occupy the building I don't know, other than big-time concerts and those dance productions. It is said that there will be classrooms in the building, presumably for performance classes of some kind. I know of no performance arts being taught at Fairhope High School, but maybe they're planning to start them. Maybe local theater groups will want to use the facility. At the moment there is only Theater 98, with a 99-seat house that it fills for I think eight performances four or five times a year.

Most likely outside artists will use the new center. That means an office will have to be established to book these artists in on a regular basis, and the performers will have to be those who draw crowds of 2,000 -- no more and not much less. It is not a job for the inexperienced, finding and scheduling these artists, and filling the seats. It will do more to change Fairhope than a Wal-Mart a few miles from the city limits. One would think, if the performers are the right sort, the change would be for the better. But there is no guarantee of this.

The large disposable income of most of our residents should ensure an audience for the performance center, and the high literacy rate of our citizens should ensure complete use of the library. But what if we had started down this trail with lower expectations, serving the actual needs instead of the anticipated needs of the populace? What if we had just half the budget for both these projects?

When they were started, neither project was all that ambitious. But things have a way of getting out of hand, and I think that's just what happened. Building projects are easier than building usage when the money has already been raised. The work of using both these new buildings is just beginning. And the money must continue to come in.

It's true that things used to be simpler. We had more time before the days that all problems could be solved by raising more funds. And when people thought more, they were less easily manipulated by those who had their own agendas. These hidden motives might have been well-meaning but were not necessarily best for the community.

Now we talk about planned growth in this geographical area all the time. This causes us to anticipate projected growth rates and respond to that anticipation. But the anticipation of growth in the cases of these two new buildings seem to have caused the projects themselves to grow. Money was said to be needed; money came.

The idea seems to be that bigger is better because we can afford it.

1 comment:

almadenmike said...

I note your mention of a Wal-Mart a little outside the city limits. That company's strategy is to locate, when possible, outside city limits so they don't have to pay city taxes. Of course, this makes sense to lower expenses for the company, but deprives the city of funds, due to those lost taxes as well as those from reduces revenues of competitors within the city limits.