L.A. wants to run the Greek Theatre? First take care of the parks

After a political showdown on Greek Theatre contract, the city may operate the venue itself. Good idea?

The Los Angeles parks department may be getting into the concert business.

The Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners voted Wednesday to toss out two multimillion-dollar proposals by major entertainment companies to run the city-owned Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, Emily Alpert Reyes reported. Instead, parks department staff will develop a proposal for the city to manage the theater itself, including handling concert booking, maintenance, concessions and parking. The city could run the theater permanently or just until a new request for bids is developed.

The commission’s decision followed a political showdown at City Hall last month between current theater operator Nederlander and its partner Anschutz Entertainment Group, and Live Nation. The competing firms packed public meetings with supporters and sent droves of lobbyists and lawyers to sway City Council members. Ultimately, the Council overruled the commission’s decision to give the contract to Live Nation and sent the proposals back to the commission.

Clearly, the decision over who should run the Greek Theatre become too political. But the answer is to fix the contracting process, not give up on private management of the theater. Pardon my skepticism, but City Hall doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to running profitable entertainment venues. In 2013, the city handed over operation of the money-losing Convention Center to AEG with the hope that the company could cut costs and increase the number of conventions and attendees. Last year, the Los Angeles Zoo brought in the nonprofit Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. to manage marketing and promotions to attract more visitors and more private fundraising.

Several years ago there was an effort by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to look at privatizing certain city assets, from the zoo and golf courses to parking garages and the Convention Center. Some public facilities are now partially managed by private operators, including the convention center and an animal shelter. Some proposals, thankfully, went nowhere, like the questionable effort to sell the rights to the city’s parking meters. Nevertheless, the premise of privatizing certain public assets was a good one. The city should be focused on its core mission – protecting public safety, maintaining public infrastructure and delivering basic services.

So it’s a little worrisome that the Recreation and Parks Department wants to get into concert business. The Greek Theatre is an aging venue in need of major upgrades. Nederlander/AEG and Live Nation proposed spending about $20 million to $40 million in capital improvements. Will the city have the money to do that work?

There is a model for public operation – the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver generates enough money to cover day-to-day security and operations, as well as long-term maintenance. And the city could earn more money from the facility by cutting out the contractors. But more revenue comes with more risk and more responsibility for an agency that specializes in maintaining public parks, not running a multimillion-dollar concert venue.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council will have to decide whether this is really a risk worth taking.

For more opinions, follow me @kerrycavan

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