A city-run bidding process for the property currently occupied by the Colony Theatre has been the source of public ire in recent months, prompting city officials to bring the proceedings to the City Council for review next month.
“In a resolute demonstration of its commitment to fairness, transparency and the vibrant arts community it serves, the city of Burbank will bring the request for proposal process for the sublease, management and operations of the Burbank Center Stage to the City Council for review. This decision comes in light of recent external communications amongst stakeholders that have expressed concern about the process,” stated a city of Burbank press release published Wednesday evening.
As part of its request for proposal process, or RFP, the city invited arts and theater organizations to apply to occupy the 14,000 square foot theater space, called Burbank Center Stage, in December 2022. As part of a development agreement with the Burbank Town Center, the city leases the building at a very low cost and is committed to utilizing the space for arts and theater.
Among the applicants are the current sub-tenant, the Colony Theatre, which hopes to secure a long-term lease at the space where they’ve run live theater, dance, arts and culture events for 23 years. Colony was joined by Greenhouse Arts and Media, After Hours Theatre Company and the Burbank Community YMCA, which are also vying to lease the space.
But, after three months of extensions were made to the final selection deadline and an additional interview was added to the process, some of the applicants have come forward with concerns about the RFP review. Some claimed that the city lacked prompt communication, while one applicant, After Hours Theatre Company, said the city outright disqualified their application without providing a clear reason.
Brendan Jennings, vocal music director at John Burroughs High School, is a member of the After Hours Theatre Company who hoped to utilize Burbank Center Stage. In a letter to the editor published in the Leader in June, Jennings wrote that After Hours hadn’t heard back on its application for weeks, and that its team called the city repeatedly.
“When they called us back, they informed us that our application had been ‘flagged as non-responsive’ and removed from consideration. … According to the staff member on the call, we missed a financial document. We feel strongly that we included everything they requested, but she would not clarify specifically what was missed or why they were considering us ‘non-responsive’ when no communication was ever sent to us.”
Parks and Recreation Director Marisa Garcia, a city official close to the situation, explained that confidentiality is at the forefront of city priorities during the process, and therefore, she was unable to elaborate on specifics related to individual applicants until the department reports to the City Council in August.
Colony Theatre leadership echoed Jennings’ sentiments in an interview with the Leader this week.
“The RFP process has been challenging and exhausting on numerous levels,” said Heather Provost, the producing artistic director for the Colony Theatre.
“The execution of the RFP process itself has certainly raised many questions and red flags as we’ve previously stated publicly. But despite everything that has gone on, we remain hopeful and continue to do the work that needs to be done,” Provost added.
City officials say there’s a reason for the delays and additional interviews, but, due to the confidential nature of the evaluation process, they won’t be able to outline exactly why the process has been changed until the RFP comes before the City Council on Aug. 22.
“That will all be explained in the staff report in August,” Garcia told the Leader.
Garcia and other city officials emphasized the importance of an unbiased and confidential review process and stated that the level of public discourse over the RFP is ultimately behind the city’s decision to push the matter directly to the Council.
Ordinarily, a confidential evaluation of applicants is conducted by a panel of three subject matter experts in community theater and three city staff members. The panel will typically make a recommendation for one applicant based on its review, and then a staff member will report to the City Council, which has the final say.
But city officials now say that, because external communications during the process garnered significant public attention, it could be difficult for the panel to make an unbiased decision. They decided that the panel would no longer make a recommendation, and the decision would instead be made by the Council directly.
“Unfortunately, since the panel’s work, the city has become aware of an array of external communications, including social media discussions and local press coverage, pertaining to the RFP process. These communications, while indicative of the community’s unwavering passion for the arts, have caused concerns about continuing to maintain the integrity and objectivity of any additional evaluation process,” city officials stated in a press release.
“That statement was not lost on us,” Provost said, referencing the city’s press statement.
“However, it would seem the integrity of the process was compromised long before it received social media or local news outlet attention. The RFP was not a secret, it was public knowledge. People were talking about it. And people were and still are outraged for a variety of reasons. Understandably so. For our organization specifically, we could no longer allow others to control our narrative when that narrative was absolutely inaccurate,” she said.
Though, by shifting the judgement to the Council, both parties acknowledge that the process will be more transparent.
“By involving the City Council in the decision-making process, the city of Burbank is reaffirming its commitment to openness and inclusivity. The Council’s input will ensure that the future management and operations of the cherished Burbank Center Stage align with the collective vision of the community,” stated city officials.
“We are encouraged by what we’ve presented in our proposal, that will now be brought to Council and continue to have hope that if there is still good left in our political system and municipal government, then that good will triumph. We are of the belief that the City Council will do the right thing by the people of Burbank and the arts community,” Provost told the Leader.
ARTS COMMUNITY VOICES DISSAPROVAL
The Colony Theatre underwent an RFP in 2017, where they submitted a modified business plan that was to the city’s liking. The following lease negotiations, which took almost five years to finalize, are the source of the Colony’s woes.
While the Colony has made good on its business plan — hosting at least two large-scale productions annually, running youth arts programs, providing performance space for Burbank schools and using the space as a community performing arts rental house — they’ve been doing so on a short-term lease since the last RFP.
“We have been defending the existence of this historic institution of a theatre while also never having a long-term lease in place, since I came on board in 2017,” Provost told the Leader.
Provost said that the Colony went back and forth with the city for several years in hopes of negotiating and finalizing a long-term lease, but weren’t successful until September 2022, according to Garcia, who said they signed a lease through July 2023. It was recently extended to December.
“The process had gone on longer, and we knew that we were not going to have ample time. We just felt that it was the right thing to do instead of just keeping them on a month-to-month to extend their lease at least through December, which guarantees them the additional five months through the end of the calendar year,” Garcia said.
In December 2022, the city issued the last RFP for Burbank Center Stage. The initial selection date was scheduled for March, but undisclosed delays have led the city to extend it. The process was first publicly criticized by Suzanne Weerts — a member of the Burbank Cultural Arts Commission — when she announced at a City Council meeting last month that she would not be seeking another term on the commission largely because of the city’s handling of the RFP.
“I think it’s unfortunate that citizens like myself, who want to make a difference, are so disheartened they no longer wish to serve,” Weerts said in a public statement to the City Council. “The city is nearly three months behind on their March 16 final selection timeline to choose a proposal. A theatre cannot operate on a month-by-month basis.”
Weerts criticized the transparency of the review process and expressed her feeling that the Cultural Arts Commission should advise on the Burbank Center Stage RFP, but says they were not looped in.
“Our commission was blindsided Dec. 30, 2022, when we received the RFP for Burbank Center Stage. It makes sense that an arts commission would at least serve in an advisory role in one of the few theatrical spaces over which our city has some control,” she said.
Garcia responded in a statement to the Leader, saying the city had plans to bring the RFP before the Cultural Arts Commission once the review of applicants was completed.
“The theater facility actually falls under the purview of the Parks and Recreation board, but there’s an obvious tie-in with the Cultural Arts Commission. Our plan was, once we completed the review process, and prior to presenting recommendations to City Council, we were going to present it to the parks and recreation board, as well as a cultural arts commission to give them an opportunity to ask questions and weigh in. We would then include their comments or feedback in the staff report that would go to Council ultimately,” said Garcia.
As all parties involved have shifted their focus to maintaining a transparent RFP process, the next developments will take place in a public forum. The City Council deliberates in August and will decide which bidder will be granted the Burbank Center Stage space for use in 2024.
First published in the July 15 print issue of the Burbank Leader.