07/07/2010 02:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stretching a Buck

It's often said that a buck doesn't buy what it used to. Yet that has never been true for any number of non-profit organizations. Public land and buildings are frequently leased for $1 per year by local governments. Why? First, it's a good way to incentivize more and diverse organizations that seek to further the public good, and not only in the cultural sector. Second, it tends to pay, or more than pay for itself in the form of bringing local folks and/or tourists into an area. That's good for local businesses and enhances tax revenue. The occasional great organization can enhance the overall image of the host city in ways that offer further benefit that is more difficult to measure -- and sometimes immeasurable.

So let's say you own a lot of property, but since times are tough you must consider dumping some even in a weak market to keep your head above water. In better days you turned a building over to a group of nice folks who've taken good care of the place and behaved like good citizens; but freebies like this are dragging down your bottom line. It may be time to give the kids notice. And that is just what the City of Los Angeles is contemplating with regards to about 130 non-profits organizations, many of them arts organizations. Why now? Like so many other cities, the national economic crisis, apparently starting to ease somewhat, has left them strapped for cash.

Now one of those high rollers whose pockets are far deeper than the times are tough comes in with an offer. He's very high on the building's location, and wants to bring in a team of architects and contractors to turn an ordinary place into a palace. Not only that, but when the moving van comes... well the interior will be even more eye popping. The public is going to want to check this out for sure, and he's going to charge them admission for the privilege. And turn the admission revenue over to the City. And in return? Charge him $1 for every year he stays; and he can stay for, oh, 99 years. Do you take the deal? Duh.

This is more or less a story playing out with cities around the country, but nowhere is it more dramatic than in Los Angeles, where Lorenzo de' Broad is considering locations for his long-expected legacy museum, including one on the opposite corner from Disney Hall and all of a block up from MOCA -- two institutions that probably wouldn't even be there but for Lorenzo's largesse. The geography may end up being like poor spacing on the basketball court, with too many bigs too close to one another. You expect a slam dunk, but the whole thing could end up looking rather silly. But it could happen, and if it does Mr. Moneybags will be paying that $1 annually to the City of Los Angeles -- just as the selfsame City is giving a raft of community non-profit tenants that have enjoyed that same deal, often for decades, the boot. But can you blame the City for courting this deal? This would figure to be a cash cow for decades out to the horizon; and if Grand Avenue can never be the Champs-Élysées, it would nonetheless likely be a Grand Avenue indeed, and complement L.A. Live to the south to essentially anchor Downtown's North -- and Southwest corners once and for all.

But what about those fine people who can really only afford to do their good works because the City has extended them exactly the same consideration that it is so understandably willing to extend to some billionaire?

Public budget debates continue to play out as government enters its new fiscal year on July 1st. Fears continue to mount that important community organizations may be dismantled or turned out of facilities that, in some cases, they have occupied for decades.

We observed just how unseemly it appears when, in light of this very real problem, one of the wealthiest men in Los Angeles is being offered his own $1 per year deal with the City. Understandable in light of the probable revenue his new museum would likely produce. But how bad, at the very least, are the cosmetics?

I think there is a deal, a really fine deal, to be made here between Daddy Artbucks and the City. Replicate what saved MOCA and Disney Hall, but for a bunch of these smallfry. Sure, SPARC -- the Social and Public Art Resource Center -- and the Eagle Rock Art Center, not to mention the San Pedro City Ballet and the Interact Theatre Company are not the same World Class institutions. But these are the seedbeds, the proving grounds that make Los Angeles a great cultural hothouse. This could work in everybody's favor, but only by doing it as one simple package. Start breaking down the largess selectively and it could never work. For a lot less money than the $30 million it took to rescue MOCA -- and, hell, the local folks need to chip in to support the cause too -- the big picture will be a whole lot rosier. And the whole city, not just the City government, might just feel good about that buck.