By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Ever since Ronald Reagan declared that, “government is the problem” in his first inaugural address in 1981, Americans’ affinity to and respect for government has been on the wane. If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, “Government can’t do anything right,” I’d be able to fly around in my own jet like Donald Trump, although, I have to admit, ORTBALS emblazoned down the side in giant capital letters wouldn’t have the same cachet.
While I’m a believer in government — after all, it was government employees who dispatched the Hubble telescope to the far reaches of the cosmos; developed the Internet; and planned and executed the raid on Bin Laden’s compound — I certainly don’t believe that it is the answer to all our problems either. Some things are best suited to government; the private sector is best for others; and sometimes it makes the most sense for the two to partner.
So it was, in 2010, when I read that the city of Edwardsville was going to spend $3 million to restore and reopen the Wildey Theater that I thought it was a clear case of government venturing where it did not belong. In fact, I sent off an email to my local alderman who had been shepherding the project for several years, voicing my opinion that the venture was a huge mistake. They had been seeking a private sector party to take the project on and resorted to government as developer of last resort when none could be found. This, I reasoned, was all you needed to know. Those people and companies with successful track records in the theater business wanted nothing to do with the Wildey Theater. Why would government think it could do what the pros had concluded couldn’t be done?
I was partially right. If you read my story in last month’s issue, you know that the Wildey opened in April 2011 and for two years was, as I had predicted, a black hole in Downtown Edwardsville, drawing meager crowds at best and no one at all at worst. But then, the city made a move that turned the sow’s ear into a silk purse. They hired an entertainment professional with years of experience and success in the business.
Now, playing to sellout crowds, the Wildey has become the community gem that its proponents had envisioned.
There are those, I’m sure, who will say that the Wildey will never make back its $3 million renovation cost or that government doesn’t belong in the entertainment business, but sometimes projects can’t be evaluated purely in dollars and cents and sometimes the government must act when others won’t. Community assets like parks and recreation facilities don’t pay cash dividends but they do make for a more livable and attractive community, increasing residential demand and everyone’s property values along with it.
I attended a concert at the Wildey in January. Waiting for the band to start, I struck up a conversation with the people sitting next to me. They were from Hazelwood, Mo., and had had dinner in one of Edwardsville’s restaurants before the show. People coming into town and spending their money like this creates wealth and jobs in the community.
The Wildey never would have worked for a private business because the direct revenues derived from its operations would never have covered all the costs. But, by the city taking the lead and the gamble, it’s indirectly generating wealth for local governments and the property owners of Edwardsville. Not a bad investment.