COMMENTARY: VCA rep: Board acted responsibly in building new center

Bruce Morser (Courtesy Photo).

Bruce Morser (Courtesy Photo).

No doubt, Liz Shepherd worked hard on her VCA article — a complex subject (“Arts center answers a $6 million question,” June 20). I agree with some of her numbers, but not many of her conclusions. I wish I, or any of the four full-term Building Committee members, had been interviewed by The Beachcomber prior to publishing her article and the corresponding editorial. I was a VCA board member during the entire VCA project and a presenter at most of the information and fundraising events.

Today’s big question — why did VCA quietly cash out a $6 million trust earmarked as an operational reserve? — implies a secretive effort to save a struggling project. This is a complete misunderstanding and untrue. When the board learned that Kay’s Charitable Remainder Trust could be legally restructured to use funds immediately to start construction and that incoming funds from other sources and donors could be diverted to fill the role of reserve fund, once occupied by Kay’s trust, the board felt it was definitely the responsible thing to do. We didn’t think to notify anyone because when all the current pledges, grants and future fundraising were gathered, there would be a similar amount of resources still available to keep the project financially secure, as well as true to our priorities. That remains the same. Also, Kay wanted her trust restructure to be immediately useful as building funds.

In 2015, there were many reasons to begin construction promptly. Changing financial conditions and escalating costs, among others, but there were two crucial points: Every board member was absolutely certain that the state’s $2 million dollar grant would not be re-appropriated and that Kay’s health was deteriorating. Kay wanted to sing (later listen) in a quality hall on Vashon Island, but her original gift proved unusable until her death. That was a problem. Kay never intentionally gave an “operational reserve”; the trust was only later labeled that when everyone learned that it was essentially unusable (even as collateral for a loan).

It’s important to understand that the board and staff were guided by a set of priorities. I was dedicated to them. They included:

• Help solve the urgent arts facility needs on Vashon Island with a quality product.

• Do not duplicate or hurt existing facilities, i.e. Open Space, VHS, etc.

• Prioritize island audiences and island artists.

• Maintain “island ticket prices” for most events.

• Ensure future financial security.

We have stayed true to these priorities.

Importantly, there was a balance sought between building something big enough to solve island needs while maintaining fiscal responsibility. Not unlike a young family buying a first home. How big? How much?

Twice, we put the project on hold to ensure these priorities were being met. Remember the pause after the fall 2015 ground breaking? Cost escalations and heavy rain made us announce we would wait for spring, more money and dry weather. In the meantime, a ton of value engineering brought the cost of the building down. While we (and most other building projects) took a big hit due to sudden, post-recession price escalations, today the total amount of VCA financial resources still reflects much of the original “operational reserve.”

Finally, The Beachcomber editorial ends with a comment about “spin.” No one I know lied or “spun.” I remain proud of what islanders achieved at Center. Two weeks ago as I stapled up all 100+ fourth-grade bird paintings, I thought, “This is VCA.”

— Bruce Morser is an artist/illustrator who served on VCA’s board from 2008-2016 and on the building committee for the entire project. He wrote this commentary on behalf of himself and the full-term members of the Building Committee who served with him: Paul Martinez, Susan Kutscher and Tim Roden.

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