St. Petersburg Times Online: Floridian

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Budget hits a low note

The Florida Orchestra, facing a deficit of as much as $400,000 for the past season, wants to fill its endowment coffers along with its conducting positions.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001


The Florida Orchestra, facing a deficit of as much as $400,000 for the past season, wants to fill its endowment coffers along with its conducting positions.

Leonard Stone quips that "mad Dow disease" is one of the reasons he thinks the Florida Orchestra lost money during the 2000-01 fiscal year, which ended Saturday.

"The turns and machinations of the stock market affected us," said Stone, executive director of the orchestra. "There was a much more cautious and guarded level of giving of the larger gifts, from $2,500 and up."

The orchestra won't have final figures for a few weeks, but Stone said Tuesday that the loss could range from $200,000 to $400,000. "How much will depend on whether some requests out there materialize."

Close to half of the orchestra's $8.2-million budget is covered by contributions from individuals, corporations and government entities.

In the previous fiscal year, the orchestra posted a surplus, largely on the strength of a $1-million challenge grant from Tampa businessman John Sykes and his wife, Susan. However, Sykes' computer support company, Sykes Enterprises Inc., fell on hard times. He has been in no position to make donations to the orchestra or other institutions at the level he has in recent years.

With the end of the fiscal year moved from the end of May to the end of June for the first time, the orchestra appeared to take a relatively low-key approach to the looming deficit, at least compared with last year, when the Sykes challenge grant generated much attention and new supporters.

"What you had last year was the magnetism of the challenge," Stone said. "This year we didn't have the visibility, the excitement of the challenge."

Nor did other benefactors come to the fore to cover the deficit, as has sometimes happened in the past. "This orchestra for too many years has relied on somebody coming to the rescue at the end," Stone said. "Nobody wants a deficit, but the longer-range plan is to find ways and solutions to have the challenge shared by a broader range of people than just that last-minute rescue."

The fundraising effort switched leadership in February, when it was announced that Julie Swanson was resigning as development director. She was replaced by C. Edwin Davis, who came from a similar post at the Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, if the orchestra is ever to achieve financial stability, it will need a larger endowment to generate more investment income to cover shortfalls in the budget. The endowment now amounts to about $8-million, counting a bequest from a trust of Mary Elizabeth Mitchell, a longtime donor to the orchestra from Belleair Shore who died in 1999.

Stone said an industry rule of thumb is that the endowment should be four times an orchestra's annual operating budget, which would mean an endowment of more than $30-million for the Florida Orchestra. A recently completed five-year plan for the orchestra says building up the endowment should be a priority, but a capital campaign is not in the works yet.

The deficit will inevitably have an impact on the musicians' contract, with the current one-year contract expiring in August. The musicians' payroll accounts for about 40 percent of orchestra expenses.

"A loss always hampers the discussion, but historically musicians and management attempt to take a longer view," said Stone, adding that the trend is toward contracts that run as long as five years.

No contract negotiations are scheduled during the summer, when many musicians are working elsewhere, so the 2001-02 season will probably get under way in September without a new deal between board and players.

Stone anticipates a "talk and play" scenario, in which the current contract will be renewed temporarily while a new one is worked out. With a base salary of just over $27,000 for a 36-week season, the 84 orchestra members are at the bottom of the pay scale of U.S. orchestras.

Three times when Stone was executive director of the Calgary Philharmonic, he negotiated contracts under similar circumstances. "There, it was a matter of weeks, perhaps as long as a month and a half, to get it done," he said. "I feel quite comfortable with the circumstances here."

Next season is shaping up as a decisive one for the orchestra. Jahja Ling is stepping down as music director after 15 years, capping his tenure with performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 in April.

Six guest conductors are prospective candidates to succeed Ling. Two of them -- Michael Christie and Maximiano Valdes -- return after conducting the orchestra last season with good results. Christie will lead the season-opening program, and Valdes was recently added to the schedule, taking Ling's place on the podium for a program in January.

The orchestra's other conducting posts are in flux, too. In November, resident conductor Thomas Wilkins was named resident conductor of the Detroit Symphony, and next season is his last under a three-year contract with the Florida Orchestra. Wilkins, a popular figure in the bay area, will be spending more time in Detroit. For the first time, he will not lead all the Thursday morning coffee concerts at Mahaffey Theater.

"Tom is transitioning away," Stone said. "Obviously we'd like to keep some connection. Ultimately he'll be in Detroit, but there will always be a desire and a constituency to have Tom back here."

The pops music director post has been vacant for a year since Skitch Henderson stepped down. Stone is content to continue with a series of guest conductors, including Henderson, for the time being.

"We simply have not focused on that," he said. "It hasn't affected the pops bottom line yet. It's not the immediate priority."

There is no solution in sight to the orchestra's biggest problem: securing dates in Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Morsani Hall. That 2,500-seat hall is frequently booked with Broadway tours, bumping the orchestra into 1,000-seat Ferguson Hall, which also has acoustic problems. In 2001-02, six of the 14 masterworks and three of the eight pops programs in Tampa will be in Ferguson. Things get worse the following season, when both The Lion King and Aida have long runs in Morsani.

The lack of consistent dates and Ferguson's inadequacies have decimated the orchestra's subscription base in Tampa. "We have estimated that the loss on an annual basis could be as much as $500,000," Stone said.

A deficit, conductor changes, the musicians' contract to negotiate, the hall predicament in Tampa -- Stone acknowledges the seemingly perennial problems, but after a long career in orchestra management, he also puts them in perspective.

"Every year we say it's the defining year," he said. "These animals are unbelievable challenges, but we're here. We've made it through another year."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.