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Published: Thursday, 8/9/2001

Red ink halts Arts Council

BY REBEKAH SCOTT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Don't try to phone the Performing Arts Council of Toledo, the parent organization of First Night Toledo.

The council's telephone was disconnected two weeks ago. The lights are off in its former headquarters in The Professional Building across from the Toledo Museum of Art. Council records were hauled to the home of board president Eileen Kerner on July 31.

Office furniture and machines have been turned over to the art museum, the council's landlord, to offset a $7,000 rent bill accumulated since October.

Appearances say PACT has finally expired beneath an estimated $80,000 debt, a victim of haphazard bookkeeping, staff turnover, and declining event attendance. The future of First Night Toledo, the annual downtown New Year's Eve party that started in 1993, is in serious jeopardy.

It's a dark scenario familiar to Ms. Kerner, who took the board presidency at PACT two weeks ago. In 1992, Ms. Kerner took over managing the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, when that organization was ready to close its doors. When Ms. Kerner left eight years later, AGCT's finances were well into the black, and its program offerings had doubled.

PACT may be down, but it's not out yet, she told board members last week.

"We have to prove ourselves," she told The Blade yesterday. "The rumor mill is grinding, and yes, we are struggling right now. But we're moving ahead. We have a budget now, and First Night can still happen, if the board approves some things."

In the past two weeks, Ms. Kerner has made $22,500 worth of "hand-shake agreements" with county and city officials, pledges to help finance this year's $100,000 celebration. She has board members visiting PACT creditors, asking for debt forgiveness or restructuring. Grants and corporate underwriting agreements have covered some outstanding debts, and the next school year is assured for The Muse Machine, a PACT program that brings performing artists to 33 area schools.

"People are being very patient with us," Ms. Kerner said. "They know we're ethical people who don't run up bills we don't intend to pay. None of this was done with malice."

"Right now, we're just kind of waiting, looking for ways to continue to function," said Sister Sheila Shea, a Sylvania Franciscan nun who volunteered to run PACT last year. "We would like to partner with some other groups, but we want to keep our identity."

But the picture still is not cheery. PACT still owes last year's First Night artists $16,000 to $18,000; the 1,000-plus performers have received just over half their agreed-upon fees. It owes a local bank stands at about $45,000 in line-of-credit debt. Other outstanding miscellaneous debts add up to about $20,000.

Nevertheless, board members say they're forging ahead with plans for next New Year's Eve.

"As far as I know, First Night will be back again this year," said Jori Jex, a member of PACT's board of directors.

"We exist. We haven't disbanded in any way," added board member Sandy Craig. "I'd assume there will be a First Night this year. Nobody has said there won't be one."

But no one has told Marge Ratasky to go to work.

Ms. Ratasky volunteered to oversee the First Night organizing committee this year. "In June when the news of all these financial concerns came up, the board told me to wait on getting sponsorship, to just wait," she said.

"As of last week, I gave them a budget estimate in time for their board meeting. And that was the last I heard. I have some great ideas, some things I'd love to get going with. But since about March, I haven't really known what to do. I'm just sitting on this."

PACT has been plagued by money woes since 1999. According to its fiscal reports, First Night Toledo is a loss leader for the organization. In the past two years, major sponsors have pulled out, weather was bitterly cold, and the organization's director left to run CitiFest. This year's board found the organization's bookkeeping in disarray. After receiving only partial payment and letters of apology from PACT, many of the artists said they wouldn't work First Night again.

Ms. Jex said the organization will become more visible after several board members return from summer vacation trips. "We'll take a stronger course of action after our next meeting," she said. "We don't want to scale back First Night, but we think it may be time to bring some new energy to it."

Meantime, auditors are poring over financial records, and board members were advised by an attorney early this year to avoid public discussion of past money matters, Ms. Jex said.

"Things took place before that are regrettable," she said. "The arts cost money. It's a business. You have to have strong community backing, and you've got to have responsible people running the place. People who know what they're doing."

Ms. Kerner said resurrecting the organization will take at least 18 months, but it can be done.

"Some other cities' First Nights have closed up, but we're not to that point yet," Ms Jex said. "It would be easy to give up, but we're working, we're looking at all kinds of options. We've still got some really positive energy going."



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