No-Bad-DaysBy Don Nelson

How is it, you may wonder, that the Town of Winthrop and the Winthrop Auditorium Association, the volunteer nonprofit that operates the “Barn” for the town, can’t come to accommodation on a new operating agreement? What’s taking so long? What’s the hang-up?

Well, you could ask me as the reporter who’s been writing about it. And I might beckon you to lean in close so I can whisper into your ear, with all the professional journalistic authority I can summon, and say this: “I don’t know.”

That’s not to say I don’t know anything about it, or what the friction points are. There’s much to pore over and attempt to glean from the dozens of pages in the many documents involved, some of them going back decades.

It more or less adds up to “they said, they said.” Still, I think it’s more than the difference between to-MAY-to and to-MAH-to. But let’s not call the whole thing off.

As a reporter, I try to bring balance to the coverage. As an observer/columnist, I try to lend insight. The best I can come up with here is to once again evoke the famous line from “Cool Hand Luke:” “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

The Auditorium Association seems to be looking for some respect and consideration for its many years of keeping the Barn going, often dealing with inadequate facilities, infrastructure challenges and seeming indifference by town leaders. They were working under a 25-year agreement — in retrospect, unwisely — and a deal was a deal.

That long-term deal expired in May of last year, and the Auditorium Association has continued to operate the Barn under a temporary agreement. Earlier this year, the association pressed for what it considered a better deal, with the town assuming more responsibility for the building’s upkeep and improvements. The association came to the town with its own proposed five-year agreement in January.

Robert Stone, president of the association board, told the Town Council that the association had attempted to extend the existing agreement “to no avail … we were told there would be a new agreement.” The association board contacted an attorney who helped them develop the three-page proposal. Under that first proposal, the town would be responsible for all structural upkeep, mechanical systems, fixtures, equipment and grounds; and also be responsible for paying utility costs, insurance, taxes and snow removal. The association would be responsible for bookings and for setting usage rates.

In April, I reported that the town and association were closer to an agreement, according to Mayor Sally Ranzau, with “some details remain to be worked out.” She acknowledged some past communications lapses, but indicated that negotiations were on track.

Oops.

Two weeks later, I reported that “negotiations between the Town of Winthrop and the Winthrop Auditorium Association over an operating agreement have stalled again.” Town representatives had met with the association’s representatives, expecting to smooth out some details, but instead “got stonewalled,” the mayor said. The Auditorium Association representatives wanted more review by the two sides’ attorneys. The town ran its agreement past the town attorney, so now it is, presumably, all legally spiffed up, tuck-pointed, hand-seamed and dry-aged to perfection.

The Auditorium Association sent a letter to the mayor and council expressing disappointment at the “disparaging remarks” of the town’s representatives, and asserted that the town’s proposed agreement would have the barn operating at a “significant loss,” and “radically challenged the liability and risks of the parties.”

“It is the town’s failure to recognize the material shift on risk and responsibility from the 1992 lease to the Town’s new proposal that is the reason we cannot move forward,” the association said in its letter. Ranzau said the town was standing by its latest revised proposal.

So there you have it, going into the Auditorium Association’s membership meeting on Monday (June 4), where officers are to be elected — and the agreement disagreement is a certain topic.

I’m not suggesting this at all, but I have to wonder — what if the Auditorium Association, which is now operating under a temporary agreement, simply walked away said, “OK, you run it?” The Town doesn’t currently have staff in place to take over. I don’t think either side wants that.

There must be a joke about horses and barn doors in here somewhere. Not that anyone would be likely to laugh. The beloved Barn is too important a community asset for the uncertainty over its operation to keep dragging on. I’m hoping the next agreement I report on will be the final one.

 

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