Thursday, July 07, 2011

Business Journal says Jazz St. Louis to launch major fundraising drive for new building, endowment

In a story in this week's edition (July 1- 7), the St. Louis Business Journal reports that Jazz St. Louis plans to launch a major fundraising effort to create an endowment and build a new headquarters and performance facility.

The report by E.B. Solomont of the Business Journal staff says that with a price tag estimated at $10 million, "the new venue would have up to 250 seats, up from 150. It also would house classrooms; exhibit, rehearsal and education space; and possibly a restaurant. A capital campaign would cover construction costs, and it would be combined with an endowment campaign to expand the organization’s outreach mission."

David Steward, chairman and CEO of World Wide Technology, Inc. (pictured) will lead the capital campaign, the story says. (FYI, the online version of the story linked above is subscribers only. For this post, yr. humble StLJN editor went to the store and bought a copy of the print edition.) Steward is quoted about his interest in jazz, and JSL executive director Gene Dobbs Bradford is quoted as saying that a new facility would benefit the community and help national perception of St. Louis as a center for jazz.

The report says Jazz St. Louis has been considering a new location since 2009, and has hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility study. "The goal is to start construction next summer," it said, noting that JSL's 2012 budget of $1.8 million is up from $800,000 in 2006. The story also said that single ticket sales for 2011 were up 30% to $412,000, subscription revenue was up 12% to $120,000, and JSL ended fiscal 2011 with a $200,000 surplus.

The story ends on a slightly confusing note, though: "Bradford said he would like to stay in the Bistro building, which has become an "iconic" venue. 'We believe in this area.'"

So, is the plan to build a new facility, as suggested by the lead graf of the story, or to purchase and renovate existing buildings?

Attempts to reach Bradford, director of development Melissa Jones and other JSL staff members by phone, email and Facebook message have so far yielded no reply, which isn't particularly surprising since the story came out on the Friday before a long holiday weekend. (More on that in a minute.) When someone does reply, perhaps they'll be able to clarify that point a bit.

In the meantime, it would seem that the only way to expand on the site of the current location (pictured) would be to take over and either raze or renovate an adjacent building (or buildings), most likely to the west, starting with the former home of the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis and going toward Grand Ave.

As you can see from the street-view on Google Maps, there are actually four separate buildings on that little half-block - the Bistro, the old Contemporary, an old townhouse just to the east of the Bistro, and, to the west, the building on the corner, which also has a front on Grand Ave. That building has housed a number of businesses over the year, and at one point was the proposed site for a rhythm and blues museum.

There's certainly enough combined square footage in all those buildings to do the things mentioned in the article, though how one would go about assembling the real estate and configuring the internal space, and whether or not it can be done for $10 million are questions beyond the expertise of a mere music journalist.

It does make sense for Jazz St. Louis to want a larger space with everything under one roof. Right now, performances are at the Bistro, administrative offices are housed around the block on Olive in the Centene Center for the Arts, and education activities are held at both places, and sometimes at other off-site locations as well.

Also, the Bistro has some limitations beyond seating capacity - it has no wings or backstage area; storage space for instruments, equipments & cases is quite limited; the dressing room is a converted closet; there's no real box office or merchandise booth, as such; and space generally is tight. So there are plenty of good reasons that JSL might want some extra room, and if ticket sales are robust enough to warrant adding more seats, that's a positive development, to be sure.

However, there's also good reason to be cautious about either renovating and expanding the room or building a new performance facility. Although not originally built as a venue for live music, the Bistro works pretty well, and there's always the danger that a change could be for the worse. And even if a new or remodeled room turns out to be a great success as a performance space, ticket prices might have to rise to pay for it, and newer or local bands with less proven ability to draw a crowd might find it harder to break into the lineup.

Still, given their track record, I'd think JSL's management and board can get the job done successfully, if they can raise the necessary cash - which leads me back to the proposed capital campaign, and the Business Journal story.

It seems odd that news of such relative importance was released on the Friday before a long holiday weekend, which typically is a time that governments, businesses and other organizations release news that they don't want covered. (News organizations have fewer people working over holidays, and readers' attention tends to be elsewhere.)

One would think that when conducting a major campaign attempting to raise $10 million dollars in 12 months, one would try to get the word out in any and all possible ways. As it stands, the Business Journal story (which appeared on page 37A, not exactly choice placement) is the only one I've found anywhere. The campaign isn't even mentioned on Jazz St. Louis' own web site.

Perhaps work is already well underway, and it's not apparent to the public (or to less-elite journos like yr. humble editor) because fundraising efforts are being targeted toward a very small, select group of potential high-dollar donors. If so, that would be understandable in one sense, but it also could be a missed opportunity to raise awareness and rally support among small donors and the entire community as well.

At any rate, this certainly is an intriguing development, and one that StLJN will be following closely. Watch this space for more information as it is revealed...

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