Members of the King County Council are considering yanking $1.2 million in county money from the Tateuchi Center project, a proposed performing arts center in downtown Bellevue, due to concerns that construction on the project won’t start in time.
The Tateuchi Center project has been a long time in the making. Going back to the 1980s, Bellevue leaders have pushed to establish an eastside performing arts facility for the municipality. In 2002, a campaign was kicked off to get the project built and architectural plans for building a 2,000-seat concert hall in downtown Bellevue were drawn up a few years later.
To date, the project has raised over $125 million, with almost $70 million left to solicit to meet the end goal of almost $200 million. Some of the bigger donations include $25 million from the Tateuchi Foundation, and $20 million from the City of Bellevue.
In late 2015, the King County Council moved to chip in as well, and voted to allocate $1.2 million to the project’s construction costs from the county’s Building For Culture grant program, which helps finance art institutions across the region. But two weeks ago, the council was informed that they may want to consider pulling that money out of the project.
Here’s the rub: the grant program is funded by tax-exempt bonds that carry legal limitations on how the money can be spent and by what date. Specifically, the $1.2 million can only be spent on capital costs (e.g. brick and mortar construction) and must be used by grant recipients by March 2019. Otherwise, the bonds will be voided.
Construction on the Tateuchi Center is slated to begin this fall, and the project’s fundraisers still need to bring in over $60 million to meet their stated goal.
According to 4Culture, which oversees the distribution of the grant program, that may be cutting it too close. The public development authority recently informed both the King County Council and County Executive Dow Constantine that they don’t believe the Tateuchi Center will be able to utilize the grant funding before the March 2019 deadline.
“It is 4Culture’s assessment that Tateuchi Center will not commence facility construction in time to utilize the Building for Culture funds within the three-year bond period,” wrote 4Culture’s then-director Jim Kelly in a March 30 letter addressed to Constantine. “The project, which is making progress, still remains at least $60 million short of its fundraising goal, is reviewing new construction estimates, and will likely have to extend its fundraising timeline.”
“They have not started their construction,” said Debra Twersky, a 4Culture staffer, in a phone interview. “It would be extraordinary that they would be able to get to the dollars they need in order to be able to do the building.”
On April 2, the King County Council, the Executive’s office, and the County’s budget office were all provided status reports by 4Culture on the Tateuchi Center with the same view that the project won’t meet the grant’s requirements.
King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, has similar concerns.
“This particular funding pot has got some restrictions on it that make it challenging for the place that they’re at right now,” she said.
Any reappropriation of the $1.2 million would have to go through the standard council legislative process of starting in a policy committee before going to a full council vote. Balducci said that the council should start formally discussing reappropriating the funds within the “next few weeks.”
Aaron Rubardt, a senior analyst in the county’s budget department said that the money will likely get reappropriated for other capital projects.
Balducci wouldn’t name specific projects that she thinks should receive the $1.2 million, but stated that they would have to be “shovel ready” in order to qualify. “I don’t think there is going to be a very long list of folks like that.”
Balducci stressed, however, that her support of the project is “sincere” and that she isn’t opposed to finding a new county revenue source to put towards the project. “This money is going to expire so we have to find a replacement of some kind.”
Tateuchi Center Campaign Director Roxanne Shepherd said that the issue is the timing requirement on the grant funding, not the project’s own timeline. “This is not a question about the timeline for when we break ground,” she said. “We continue to be resolute about our timing to break ground this fall.
“The money must be spent by the end of march 2019,” she said. “Because some people question whether or not we can accomplish that, there is some consideration of reallocating our funding.”
“This is a regrouping and not an abandonment,” Shepherd added.
According to email communications between 4Culture staff and Shepherd obtained through a public records request, Shepherd allegedly told Executive Constantine back in August of last year that the project would be able to spend the grant money within the allotted time frame.
Prior to the original council vote to give the Tateuchi Center the $1.2 million grant in 2015, 4Culture gave the council and the executive’s office their own assessment of which projects should receive funding. The Tateuchi Center was not originally recommended for funding by 4Culture and was later added to the project list during the council’s approval process.
King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said in a phone interview that former council-member Jane Hague—who represented Bellevue at the time—lobbied hard to push funding towards the Tateuchi Center.
Upthegrove added that he and many of his colleagues thought at the time that the center wouldn’t be able to utilize the $1.2 within the three year window. “A lot of us recognized that it was unlikely that it would be utilized within the time frame,” he said. “And, sure enough, it is coming back to us.”
This story has been updated with comment from King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove.