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Hot Seat: Sonoma State University President Ruben Armiñana says critics of a plan to spend millions of public dollars on a gilded concert hall on campus just lack his vision.

The Color of Money

Is the Green Music Center a $48.7 million white elephant?

By Paula Harris

I hope you'll be alive to see this thing when it's built," quips Sonoma State University President Ruben Armiñana to a pair of reporters, referring to the much-anticipated Donald and Maureen Green Music Center, an opulent performing arts center planned for the small campus.

He may not be kidding.

The acoustically advanced 1,400-seat facility, slated to be the future home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, is projected to cost $48.7 million to build. The brainchild of high-tech entrepreneur Don Green--the millionaire father of Petaluma's Telecom Valley--the arts center is the most ambitious arts project ever attempted in the North Bay.

In 1997, when it was first proposed, organizers estimated that building the music center would require $15 million, with the cost being covered mostly by private donations. But the tally ballooned as plans became more ambitious, construction costs escalated, and donors demanded expensive additions, including a huge $500,000 concert organ, a founder's room, and a grander lobby.

Now the project, which is slated to draw upon several million dollars of taxpayers' money (see sidebar, "Show Me The Money"), is running into serious financial trouble. And critics are seeing red over Armiñana's support for the Green Music Center, claiming that the president could be jeopardizing academic programs at the university.

What a difference a year makes. In an elaborate public ceremony last fall, Armiñana broke ground for the construction of this state-of-the-art concert hall on a 53-acre field at the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Petaluma Hill Road. Optimistic organizers hoped to complete the project by fall of 2002. But there's been no further activity for a year. Now, the grassy field remains empty, apart from a "Future Home of . . ." sign.

In the meantime, an economy in free fall has all but halted donations to the project, especially from the beleaguered high-tech industry, and delayed the beginning of construction--perhaps indefinitely.

And criticism is mounting. The controversial music hall project--captured in an artist's rendering as a sprawling, L-shaped complex with a dramatic sloping roofline--is causing alarm because of its expense, potentially limited appeal, and dubious academic relevance.

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Show Me the Money: How much will the ambitious Green Music Center project wind up costing the public?

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A Tangled Mess

The Green Music Center has garnered considerable attention for being modeled on the world-renowned Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony's summer home in western Massachusetts. Indeed, some have dubbed the venue "Tanglewood West"; the campus newspaper has called it "a tangled mess."

Yet in stark contrast to the Green Music Center project, currently weighing in at $48.7 million, Ozawa Hall cost just $10.7 million to build in 1994. Ozawa Hall seats 750 audience members in the orchestra and loges, and another 450 in two balconies, plus a couple of thousand more concert-goers on the lawn outside.

"That's the total figure [for Ozawa Hall], including design and construction," explains Boston Symphony spokesman Jonathan Mack. "It also includes a $1 million maintenance endowment," he adds.

Indeed, Green Music Center promoters have long compared the pricier SSU project to Ozawa Hall. During several junkets paid for with private money, they've taken potential donors and reporters from the daily press to the renowned Massachusetts facility, and they've even hired the same architect and acoustics designer who worked on Ozawa Hall.

But when questioned about the huge difference in building costs for the two projects, Green Music Center promoters say that looking at the two facilities is like comparing "apples and oranges."

"Ozawa Hall is a very different structure," says Larry Schlereth, SSU's vice president of finance and administration. "The acoustics and the interior are the same, but the Green Center is a year-round structure and is being built 10 years later."

Still, critics wonder how the Green Music Center, designed to rank among the top five concert halls in the world, will fare on a sleepy university campus in Rohnert Park. Can the facility compete with such Bay Area venues as Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and attract the world-class entertainers and huge audiences envisioned by planners?

Sour Note

Critics are quick to point out other significant flaws in the ambitious plan. For instance, they worry that a facility funded in part by public money and situated at a state university is not being designed for academic use. Indeed, it's unclear exactly how the Green Music Center will benefit students, especially since the construction of such academic features as classrooms is being postponed owing to the fundraising shortfall--and could be canceled altogether, by Armiñana's own admission.

SSU is not known for having a major music program. Last May the school graduated just 14 music majors. Eleven campuses in the California State University system offer graduate-level music programs--but SSU is not one of them, nor is there a plan to start such a master's program.

And demand for music classes is not likely to increase in the near future, according to Jeff Langley, who is chair of the performing arts department at SSU, future artistic director of the Green Music Center, and a member of the board of directors of the Santa Rosa Symphony.

"I think it's a trend in our culture that college students don't tend to major in music," Langley explains. "They think very practically and think of it as an avocation rather than a profession. We can compare it to the 1970s, when everybody was a music major. Our numbers are way down from 20 years ago. I can't tell how that will change [with the new music center in place.]"

Indeed, plans to expand courses and bring in more music students to take advantage of the Green Music Center seem sketchy at best. When asked exactly what type of instructional activity would happen at the center, Schlereth replies. "At this point that's a bit unclear to me."

Neither Armiñana nor Langley had a concrete plan to present for the project's role in enhancing SSU's academic programs.

"Hopefully [the university's music program will expand]," responds Armiñana when questioned. "It's like that movie: 'If you build it they will come,' and they build a baseball field in the middle of nowhere."

In a recent interview, he had little more to add on the subject.

Humble Beginnings

What's the origin of this plan to create a world-class concert hall for a regional orchestra on a small university campus at which music is one of the least popular majors?

According to published reports, the idea for the center was born when Armiñana's wife, Marne Olson, was impressed by Tanglewood during a visit there in 1990. But some GMC organizers say the project all started when Telecom Valley tycoon Don Green wanted to build a simple choir room.

In 1997, Green--who founded Digital Telephone Systems, Optilink, and Advanced Fibre Communications--and his wife, Maureen, an SSU alumna, were eager to indulge their longtime passion for choral music. Green also hoped to lure high-tech workers to Sonoma County. So the couple donated $10 million of their personal fortune as seed money toward the planned facility, and the center was named for them.

The idea was to capitalize on the allure of arts and grapes. "I'm told the 7 percent slope of the grass will allow a wine glass to stand up without tipping over," Green told the Bohemian last spring. At the same time, he also expressed surprise at the way the project had increased in scope and cost since he first became involved.

During the past three years, the Greens have been actively fundraising for the project by sponsoring and attending weekend receptions. Mostly because of Green's influence, individuals from North Bay high-tech companies have made significant contributions.

"[A]fter Don Green's challenge, more than $4.5 million was committed, which resulted in nine of the top 11 donors coming from the high-tech industry in the area," states an SSU newsletter published last year on the California State University system website.

Then the economy took a nosedive. "Most gifts have been in the $5,000 to $25,000 range, which doesn't make a dent in what we need to get," says Jim Meyer, SSU's vice president for development. "Let's face it--we need another $10 million donor."

After the Bohemian first wrote about the slowdown of donations to the project several months ago, local philanthropist Jean Schulz kicked in a cool million--the only significant contribution in months.

Perhaps reflecting the economic slump, promotional slogans for the center have gone from "For the Love of Music" to "Aim High and Reach Wide."

Most donations arrived before the economic slowdown and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Santa Rosa Symphony conductor Jeffrey Kahane and its conductor laureate, Corrick Brown, recently kicked off a new fundraising "Conductor's Campaign" and are looking for donors for a challenge gift scenario.

The facility was originally supposed to open in time for the Santa Rosa Symphony to celebrate its 75th anniversary. "We are excited about having it happen, but a little disappointed that it won't be in 2002 as originally hoped," says Connie Wolfe, the Santa Rosa Symphony's director of development. "But it's not a death knell. We just have to wait another couple of years longer."

And Wolf believes the financial picture is improving: "Fundraising has been a bit slow since Sept. 11, but it's picking up a bit," she says.

But project organizers seem to have an inkling that their plans are too ambitious. This spring, SSU officials decided to build the project in two phases, rather than simply scale back the ambitious plan altogether.

The first phase will house the main concert hall. The second phase will contain the recital hall, practice rooms, classrooms, and administration. This second section of the Green Music Center will be used primarily for academic purposes, including senior student recitals and faculty concerts.

A plan for a lobby in phase two has been scrapped. And organizers admit it's a possibility that phase two could be nixed completely.

Unfortunately, no money has yet been raised for the project's second half--and it requires at least $9 million to build. At the current rate of donations, phase two may never see the light of day. "If we can't raise the money, it has to be scrapped," Meyer admits.

Langley says the loss of this 350-seat recital hall, with movable seats for use by theater and dance students, would be very disappointing. "It would be a blow to the music department," he laments.

Though SSU officials seldom acknowledge it anymore, the campus already boasts an excellent recital hall in the Evert B. Person Theater. It's little wonder that some faculty members see the Green Music Center as a $48.7 million vanity project and have expressed concern that it will dip into already stretched academic budgets.

"This thing started without the blessing of the faculty," says Rick Luttmann, an SSU professor of mathematics since 1970 and faculty chair for the upcoming academic year. "We're concerned where the money is going to come from to operate this facility, and that the academic programming is pre-empting the right of the faculty to determine curriculum."

Such concerns are likely to be aired at a public meeting of the Academic Senate on Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. in the SSU Commons.

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Mum's the Word

Since its inception, the Green Music Center project has been marred by confusion over costs and discrepancies in financial figures, which critics attribute to either secrecy or incompetence. When told by a reporter that individuals are confused by the changing financial figures on the project, SSU Director of Communications Susan Kashack replied, "We're finding it confusing, too." She added that there was no business plan for the Green Music Center because that consideration was "way in the future."

SSU Vice President for Academic Affairs Lynn McIntyre told another Bohemian reporter who had requested documentation on the project that "the information is in bits and pieces." She added, "You're going to be surprised that there aren't a lot of records."

Certainly, SSU officials have been less than enthusiastic about responding to questions concerning the university's financial relationship to the Green Music Center. Earlier this year, SSU journalism student George R. Quarles met repeated roadblocks in his inquiries about the project.

And the Bohemian had to take the unusual step of filing a California Public Records Act request demanding access to financial reports at the university (home to media watchdog group Project Censored) after a month of unsuccessful attempts to obtain basic facts and documentation about the project from SSU officials.

To further complicate matters, almost every SSU official interviewed for this story has personally donated significant sums of money to the Green Music Center project.

Only recently have organizers begun to bring significant facts about the financial workings into the public light. And only recently have SSU officials admitted that there is no preliminary business plan in place for the music center.

Critics allege that the project is tinged with nepotism, and they wonder if this is merely a grandiose vanity project for Armiñana and his wife, who is president of the board of directors of the Santa Rosa Symphony. Indeed, a highly critical May article in The Star, the SSU campus newspaper, called the Green Music Center Armiñana's "Personal Hearst Castle," referring to the excessively opulent showplace constructed from 1922 to 1947 as the home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, San Louis Obispo County.

The Vision Thing

Speaking from his wood-paneled office, the SSU's heavy-set, gray-bearded head honcho shrugs off criticism of the ambitious plan.

"I am known for high vision," says Armiñana in his rich Greek accent. "Is [the Green Music Center] a stretch in the vision? Absolutely, and that's what I am here for. . . . Vision carries with itself a level of criticism, and if you are not good at taking criticism you should not take this chance."

He adds that the decision to bring in the Santa Rosa Symphony as a partner in the project occurred before his wife became chair of the board of directors. "I don't see a conflict of interest," he concludes.

Armiñana, who with 10 years in the position is SSU's longest-serving president, is quick to dismiss other concerns as being simply part of the process of change, adding that he heard similar criticisms about the university's recently constructed Schulz Information Center. "I think the Green Music Center is a worthwhile place to put time, effort, and money in and at the end of the day will make an enormous contribution to the university and to the region," Armiñana says.

Still, not all university officials are so convinced. A member of the President's Budget Committee at SSU, speaking on condition of anonymity, expresses concern that hiring new professors and staffers for positions that essentially duplicate those at the university's 475-seat Evert B. Person Theater will eat into the precious Arts and Humanities budget. "We only have a certain amount," explains the source. "I have concerns that other academic programs will suffer."

Langley says it's too early for concern because it may take a decade before the music center is fully functional. "Any new facility will take a new staff, but I think the first years will be very lean and will have some dark nights," he comments. "It may be 10 years before [the music center] is fully operational and staffed to make maximum use of the facility."

He adds that, to save money, programming may focus on emerging local artists rather than prestigious household names.

Furthermore, Langley says there's no plan to deplete limited university resources. Instead, the GMC will tap into more private donations. "I think the money will come from private resources just like the bricks and mortar, and it will come in because the community will want to make use of the facility. The campaign will continue."

Yet the source on the president's budget committee doesn't agree. "I am concerned about creating a huge arts and theater empire for only maybe 50 majors," says the source. "I compare this to the Sonoma County Museum's goal of raising $20 million to expand. It's absolutely ludicrous. There's only so much money to be given to the arts in Sonoma County. It's not an endless pool, and what's going to happen to the rest of the arts projects?

"It's awful to pour all the money into one focus."

Project supporters say raising money for the Green Music Center actually helps the university find money for other needs. "Because of this project we have developed a new group of donors who had no relation to this university whatsoever," Armiñana says. "They didn't even know we existed, and some have made contributions other areas."

But critics say SSU's main fundraisers have neglected other projects. "Our main concern is that [vice president for development] Jim Meyer has raised a lot of money for scholarships in the past, but since the Green Music Center came up, he became focused on that and in the meantime isn't raising money for other things," says Rick Luttman.

Money Matters

About $20.5 million has been raised for the Green Music Center since 1997, and promoters currently face the huge challenge of raising almost as much again by next spring. That's when SSU must take a detailed financial proposal to the CSU board of trustees for approval to meet deadlines for springtime construction schedules. If donors don't come through, construction will be delayed another year, and the center won't open until at least the fall of 2005.

CSU trustees approved the center's building (though not financial) plans in May of 2000. According to published minutes of that meeting, CSU trustee Harold Goldwhite asked for clarification about the relationship between the proposed music center and the university's instructional program and music. Goldwhite also wondered, given the modest local population, how the community expected to support "such an impressive facility."

Under current plans, the main building will house a majestic, 1,400-seat indoor concert hall and offer additional outdoor seating for up to 11,000. Outdoor monitors will provide a view of the performers. Besides becoming the new home of the Santa Rosa Symphony, organizers say the hall will be the chief venue for SSU music programs, summer festivals, and year-round arts events, hopefully attracting such world-class artists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "The facility will put Sonoma County in the heart of musical culture on the West Coast," gushed an SSU newsletter last year.

By comparison, a 1998 article in Boston Magazine states that "Tanglewood attracts about 350,000 music lovers to its festival each summer--approximately half of them from the New York metropolitan area--for 10 weeks of alfresco concerts on more than 500 unspoiled acres of grounds."

Armiñana explained to trustees that the proposed center is an academic building that will house the university's performing arts department. He added that SSU conducted a marketing study that reflected that this performing arts center would attract patrons from all over the Bay Area.

This marketing analysis, conducted by AMS Planning and Research of Petaluma in August of 1999, compared the proposed Green Music Center to other concert venues, including the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts in Santa Rosa; the Lincoln Center in Yountville; the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium in San Rafael; and a new concert facility at the extensive American Center for Food, Wine, and the Arts in Napa and slated to open next month (the Napa Opera House, not included in the study, also is being renovated).

The analysis concluded that the LBC and the Marin Center will be the Green Music Center's two most important competitors because of their ready accessibility, good visibility from Highway 101 (in sharp contrast to the Green Music Center, which is several miles from the freeway), seating capacity, and long history of serving the community.

"It will be important to inform potential audiences of the aesthetic and technical features of the [new music center] and to position it as the 'quality' musical and theatrical experience in the North Bay," states the report.

"Management will need to pursue a strategy of total customer satisfaction to successfully compete. That means that from the time the decision is made to purchase a ticket through exit from the parking lot, patrons should be pampered."

There's certainly no shortage of nearby concert venues, though they may not be as acoustically advanced as the proposed Green Center. Among these is the Spreckels Theatre in Rohnert Park--about a quarter of a mile from the SSU campus--as well as the Ives Theater and the Evert B. Person Theater, which are both on the SSU campus. In addition, the Santa Rosa Symphony is currently promoting its new chamber music series in another new hall--"the elegantly appointed and acoustically superb 750-seat Jackson Theater at the Sonoma Country Day School," to quote the symphony's brochure.

There is widespread belief that the Santa Rosa Symphony could benefit from a hall with better acoustics. "The hall is certainly one of the culprits," states music writer Michelle Dulak in a recent review of a Santa Rosa Symphony performance in San Francisco Critical Voice. "Every player I've talked to who has worked in the Luther Burbank Center hall has told me how difficult it is to hear across the stage, or indeed to hear even sections relatively nearby."

But critics wonder if a $48.7 million "world-class" concert hall operated with a hefty share of public money is the answer--especially in a recession economy.

Marking Time

Despite fundraising problems, Jim Meyer, SSU's vice president for development, says there's no way the university will turn its back on the project, even though it may be losing momentum.

"We were in a totally different world as far as the local economy was concerned when we got this started," he observes. "Telecoms were being bought out with huge dollars, and almost all of that wealth was in telecom stock and that's all disappeared. And we have to find additional prospects, and since we don't have major corporations in our home base here that's really not a possibility. Most of it is going to have to come from individuals."

However, the donor pool for the music center appears limited. Much of the money raised so far has come from the telecom industry, Sonoma State University staff, and individuals connected with the Santa Rosa Symphony. For instance, at least 42 of the symphony's 57 officers have donated.

Still, Meyer, Armiñana, Corrick Brown, and Don Green are pouring energy into looking for prospects at a string of four-hour receptions in the area's more affluent households. They pin some hope in looking beyond Sonoma County, but they also admit it's more difficult to find prospects outside the region. "If people don't have a direct connection, like a weekend home here, the odds of obtaining a major gift are not as good as someone who lives in Sonoma County, made their money here, and wants to invest back into the community," Meyer explains.

Despite the setbacks, organizers view the project as a future cultural masterpiece. As Schlereth puts it, the center will provide "an audible experience that will actually move people to tears."

And Langley sees great benefit for the university. "One thing leads to another and it snowballs," he says. "What used to be a quiet hippie school behind the eucalyptus trees suddenly takes form as an intellectual hub."

Can Green Music Center supporters really make the project happen? Armiñana fiddles with one of his gold and turquoise cufflinks and mulls the question.

"Sure, you have doubts," he shrugs. "But you also have to have confidence in your beliefs that it can be done. And I'm a confident fellow."


Greg Cahill, Patrick Sullivan, and George R. Quarles contributed to this article.

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From the November 1-7, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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