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Published: 3/9/2000

Politics plays strings behind concert scene

You ever heard of a public entity turning down private-sector money? Yeah, me either. But it happened.

Last year, the General Mills Foundation and Community Partnership Council gave $7,500 for summer concerts in the Ottawa Park amphitheater. This happened when the 1999 class of Leadership Toledo (a nine-month program to boost civic involvement among business people) chose the series for a project.

Jana Gessner, an engineer for General Mills, was in last year's leadership class. She said her employer's foundation favors applications for education, arts and culture, and/or social improvement.

Ms. Gessner, who also sits on the board of her employer's foundation, praised the concerts: "You could come with your kids on a Saturday evening, picnic in the park, and listen to great, free music."

Even though no longer with Leadership Toledo, Ms. Gessner and two others loved the concerts so much they agreed to help again. But first, Ms. Gessner tried to jump-start funding.

"I called [park naturalist] Denny Garvin in January and reminded him to get his grant in. The amphitheater project met so many [foundation] criteria. Now, I can't say on the record that I could guarantee that any nonprofit would get a grant, but General Mills really likes to fund things where employees are involved. And this grant probably would have been about $2,000 more than last year," Ms. Gessner said.

But the foundation never saw an application. When I asked Domenic Montalto, president of the Ottawa-Jermain Park Advisory Board, about this year's concert plans, he said:

"We have $7,500 from the city parks commission. And we're working to get [nonprofit tax status] for the parks commission or the Ottawa park board, because corporations who donate can't give to the city and get tax advantages without it. "

But last year, I reminded Mr. Montalto, General Mills gave money using the nonprofit status of the Ottawa Coalition, a neighorhood group.

Why not so this year, thereby freeing park commission funds?

Mr. Montalto cited problems with "city accounting procedures [that] wouldn't interface" if money passed through the coalition.

And besides, he added: "We missed the deadline, very honestly. I don't handle that personally. Denny Garvin does. All I know is, he missed the deadline."

That's news to Ms. Gessner: "The deadline was not missed. Denny Garvin was told, 'You will not apply for this grant.' We were easily prepared to make the deadline until then."

Who instructed Mr. Garvin? Well, the naturalist - caught between that old rock 'n' a hard place - won't say word one. But Ms. Gessner said the directive came from Mr. Montalto.

Mary Dixon, Toledo's commissioner of recreation, also absolved Mr. Garvin: "It wasn't the missing of a deadline. Denny does a wonderful job."

Still, why bleed parks commission funding if a corporation stood by with open pockets? True, the commission is a self-supporting panel, not taxpayer funded. But couldn't that $7,500 be used elsewhere?

"I can't answer that, other than to say that the parks commission wanted to be the overall sponsor," said Ms. Dixon.

Said Julie Dangelo, who was among last year's leadership class and offered to help again with the music series this year: "We tried to stay out of the politics between the coalition and the [Ottawa] park board. But it sure seems silly to turn money down."

Roberta de Boer's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Readers may contact her at 724-6086, or e-mail roberta@theblade.com.



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