City Council Plans Special Meeting For Burbank Center Stage Request For Proposals Decision

Exterior of The Colony Theatre in Burbank, located at the Burbank Center Stage property owned by the City of Burbank. (Photo By Ross A. Benson)

The Burbank City Council will schedule a special meeting in the coming weeks or months to decide the winner of the Burbank Center Stage Request For Proposals (RFP) process that has been mired in questions and complaints about City Staff execution, communication and competence around the procedure.

An anonymous six-member panel ultimately scored the Burbank YMCA as the highest of three proposers, leading Burbank Parks and Recreation and Purchasing Staff to recommend the fitness/wellness facility as the winner, shunning the 23-year-long occupant of the space, The Colony Theatre, in the process.

The Burbank Center Stage RFP process was paused as City Staff decided to seek City Council input in how to proceed.

At the Tuesday, August 22, meeting held at Council Chambers, many community members spoke out, during over two hours of public comment, in support of the Council canceling the RFP process, which many felt was wrongly begun in December 2022, and offering a long-term contract to The Colony Theatre.

Mary Cutone, President and CEO of the Burbank YMCA, Bryan Snodgrass, COO of the Burbank YMCA, and a few people from the Y’s theater partner, Conundrum Theatre, a small community theater organization, spoke in support of the YMCA being awarded the RFP during the initial public comment session.

“Why the theater, other than the fact that it is located on the same block as the YMCA?” Cutone commented, after mentioning the YMCA’s community efforts to support women, children and LGBTQ youth throughout the past decades. “The theater… it is inclusive by nature and is great for building community. It fits perfectly with our mission to provide people of all ages lifelong opportunities to become stronger in spirit, mind and body.”

Conundrum Theatre, of which Snodgrass is Treasurer/Fundraising Chair, has one upcoming production at the 93-seat Victory Theater over two weekends in September and hosts a monthly “Piano Nite” locally. The company also offers a children’s theater camp and lists about 20 past productions, several staged at the Lincoln Beer Company in Burbank, on their website.

Conundrum has partnered with The Colony Theatre to use the Burbank Center Stage facility in the past.

Not one person during public comment spoke in favor of the RFP being awarded to the third proposer, The Greenhouse Arts & Media, a primarily online entity that sells access to occasional film industry workshops and classes. Members of The Greenhouse were in attendance during public comment and the presentation to Council but refused to engage with Council until Mayor Konstantine Anthony requested they speak.

Shun Lee Fong, President of The Greenhouse Arts & Media, said they didn’t participate in public comment because, “We believe we have a very strong proposal and we wanted it to be judged on the strength of that proposal.”

During the second public comment session held after Parks and Recreation Director Marisa Garcia’s initial report on the Burbank Center Stage RFP, not one person spoke in support of the Burbank YMCA being awarded the space.

Every single person who spoke or filled out a response card for the second public comment session – private citizens, former City officials and theater professionals including casting directors, actors, production staff and stagehands – expressed their support for The Colony Theatre to remain at the helm of the Burbank Center Stage.

“We bring years of professional expertise, mentorship, community outreach and so much more,” commented Heather Provost, Producing Artistic Director of The Colony Theatre, in a spirited comment that decried City Staff’s issuing of an RFP just as the theater was recovering from the pandemic. “This monumental decision could bring a tragic end to an historic institution which has served the community for close to 50 years.”

“We have, in fact, worked with the party being recommended to you,” she continued. “And while what they do is vastly important in their own sector, it’s deeply concerning that they needed to be told tech rehearsals were necessary, you can’t paint the stage during load in, don’t focus lights on a stage you intend to paint…”

“This is not a hobby for us. A theatrical venue is not a playground. It is still a business,” Provost also said. “It is crucial the City show support for its arts organizations. I urge you to choose a fourth option, cancel this RFP and order negotiations begin on a long-term lease with The Colony, as promised.”

“The report concludes that the Burbank Center Stage is a cherished space. That I agree with,” commented former Burbank Arts Commissioner Suzanne Weerts, citing the Staff Report released on August 17. “Though no one knows it by that name, The Colony Theatre is the ‘cherished space,’ one of just a few mid-sized theaters in our region and the single most important performance space in Burbank.”

The Colony Theatre had been told they would be given a long-term contract back in 2018 after winning that RFP with their partner Burbank Unified School District. Although City Staff continued to tell theater management a long-term contract was coming for years, none ever materialized.

Garcia explained that the City had to focus on finding a new operator for DeBell Golf Course in 2018, run an RFP and negotiate a new long-term contract with the awardee, so finalizing a long-term lease with The Colony Theatre was ignored for more than four years.

More information on the history of The Colony Theatre’s decades-long relationship with the City of Burbank and the multiple complaints and concerns surrounding the current Burbank Center Stage RFP process were detailed in two myBurbank articles, one published on July 10 and another published on August 18.

According to the City Staff report issued August 17, “Traditionally, the City enters into a five-year agreement, with the option for three, five-year extensions.”

“We do have multi-year agreements, generally they are up to 20 years,” explained Garcia at the beginning of her presentation to the Council. “Once those 20 years are up, we automatically look towards doing some sort of competitive process, not because we don’t think… or it’s our intention to oust the current operator, but because it’s our fiduciary responsibility to look for and insure that these facilities that are under the City’s purview… we do have the operator that will perform and operate these facilities in meeting the needs of the community.”

However, this statement is directly contradicted by City Staff actions. The Burbank Center Stage RFP was initially awarded to The Colony Theatre in 1996, with them taking up residency in 2000, after four years of architectural planning, construction and delays.

The second RFP in 2017-18 was won by the Burbank Unified School District, who ultimately had to drop out of the contract due to issues with the City. BUSD had partnered with The Colony Theatre for that bid.

Garcia insists the 2017 RFP was unsuccessful as the primary proposer, Burbank Unified School District withdrew from negotiations. The Colony Theatre then submitted a proposal in early 2018 that was accepted by the City.

“BUSD was the lead in the selected bid in 2017 and it was in total collaboration with The Colony Theatre Company (CTC),” explained BUSD Arts and Career Technical Education Coordinator Peggy Flynn, who worked on the proposal. “The Staff Report said we were not able to successfully negotiate a contract – this is misleading.”

“We began negotiating immediately after being notified we’d been selected,” Flynn shared. “After two months of successful negotiations, we were told we were on October [2017] agenda. Days before – literally – I got an email from Marisa Garcia telling us that the City Manager Ron Davis reviewed the negotiated contract and changed key pieces including requiring BUSD to assume all financial responsibility for ALL repairs and maintenance (HVAC, elevator, roof – all that typically would be landlord/owner responsibility) and profit sharing would extend to all student performances (which are not the District’s to negotiate but instead how our programs fundraise because the District is not able to provide all the funding that is needed.)”

“There were more changes but these were major deal breakers. They were not presented as items to be negotiated,” she continued. “We were totally blindsided. Either Staff was also blindsided by the then City Manager or no one had kept him informed of our progress until it was supposed to go to the Council for ratification.”  

“It was devastating. We had engaged many civic and private funders interested in contributing to fixing the space that really had not been well maintained by the City,” Flynn also said. “The major silver lining was it allowed The Colony to stay – albeit under constant threat.”

The current Staff Report “talks about 2006 and 2016 CTC fiscal strife but makes no mention of the financial strength of the CTC since Heather [Provost] took over in 2017 and gives the impression that staff has been patient and supportive,” Flynn added, yet the “report gives no evidence of this.”   

“I want to know why Staff issued an RFP to begin with [for 2022.] The Colony has met obligations – has managed to be one of the few professional theaters that remains operational since the pandemic.”  

Garcia shared her stance on the 2017-18 RFP, “The RFP process in 2017 was unsuccessful, and a contract as part of the RFP process was not awarded. The Colony did not submit a proposal as part of the 2017 RFP process.”

“The Colony submitted a proposal in 2018 after the RFP process was deemed unsuccessful,” Garcia said. “Their agreement in 2018 was a fourth extension of their existing agreement, it was not an award of the RFP.”

This distinction seems to come down to a matter of semantics, as The Colony negotiated the 2018 deal to continue at the Burbank Center Stage space after their partner in the RFP bid withdrew, with the promise of a long-term lease in the works.

Just four years later, in December 2022, City Staff surprised The Colony Theatre and the Burbank community at large by issuing a new RFP for the Burbank Center Stage space, after stone-walling a long-term contract with The Colony, that was supposed to happen with the 2018 negotiated agreement.

During the seven-hour-long City Council meeting, the majority of time was taken for public comment, presentation of the Staff Report and Council member discussion of the RFP. Council members periodically asked questions and sought clarifications of the RFP process.

City Attorney Joseph McDougall and Assistant City Manager Judie Wilke also weighed in on several items about legal constraints and process requirements moving forward.

A PowerPoint presentation was shared with Council members and is viewable here.

Garcia explained the scoring metric used for evaluating the three proposers for the 2022 Burbank Center Stage RFP, which resulted in the Burbank YMCA ranked first, with The Greenhouse close behind and The Colony Theatre in a distant third.

The anonymous six-member review panel included three Burbank mid-level managers in Community Development (Economic Development Division), Parks and Recreation (Administration, Business Services and Facility Operations Division) and Parks and Recreation (Community Services Division) and three “subject-matter experts who know how to operate a theater facility,” according to Garcia, from the cities of Brea, Beverly Hills and Thousand Oaks.

Completed proposals were due February 10. Initially, the written proposals were scored by the review panel and then, on March 30, in-person interviews were conducted for additional scoring, using the same questions from the written portion.

The questions for evaluation were created by Parks and Rec and Purchasing Staff, who Garcia admitted are not subject-matter experts in the operation of a professional theater space.

The 2022 RFP was based on the 2017 Burbank Center Stage RFP, according to Garcia, which was developed by the Recreation Services Lead at that time, utilizing an arts consultant to develop marketing and drafting the RFP.

The evaluation criteria, according to Garcia, were: “a) Qualifications and Prior Experience of Proposer, b) Proposed Use and Business Plan, c) Business Plan Assumptions, d) Proposed Rate, e) Interviews of highest rated Proposer(s) and f) Reference Checks.”

The three finalists’ current scores reflected the panel’s scoring from the written proposal and the same questions asked during the live interview, but did not include scoring from Reference Checks, which has not been completed.

McDougall emphasized Staff cannot share or display individual panelists’ ratings or notes, only the final scores.

Review Panel members are not allowed to discuss their specific scores for the various aspects of the written and live interviews while actively engaged in the process.

“People will submit their own rating sheets but they will naturally discuss… in the case where we have professionals from other cities, they will debate what they think is a proper technique or a best practice,” McDougall said in general about how RFP Review Panels function. “Between Thousand Oaks and Brea and Beverly Hills, they may all be successful with different strategies.”

“Something that works well in Burbank may not work well in another jurisdiction,” he added.

Several Council members asked how City Staff determined success in operating a theater space, noting the subjective elements in determining success.

Garcia agreed with the characterization as to the subjective aspect of the evaluations.

“The interview is an opportunity for the review panel to ask some questions… specific to the proposals… so whether it’s… respond on your business model or your business plan… what is your marketing strategy… it’s similar to a job interview,” she said, emphasizing that the panel scored the proposals based primarily on plans and projections, not on any real-world demonstration of past success.

Council member Nick Schultz noted that with any RFP process, the highest score is not an automatic winner.

“We go out for RFP. We have an evaluation and scoring criteria that comes back, but ultimately there is a judgment or discretionary call the Council has to make,” Shultz said. “We can, and there are probably very good reasons to go with the highest-scoring person, but Council isn’t limited to that, especially in cases like this where there’s a more subjective piece to it.”

“Certainly, the RFP process allows the Council to choose a different operator, take a different direction, unlike a very firm bid schedule where it’s the lowest responsible bidder,” Garcia agreed. “There’s that flexibility in the RFP process where Council can choose a different bidder.”

McDougall explained that any member of any Burbank commission, who may have a financial interest in the outcome of an RFP, may not participate as a public figure in the creation or function of the RFP process.

He noted a majority of the Burbank Cultural Arts Commission had conflicts of interest with multiple proposers, and legally had to be excluded from the process.

The RFP process by law must be shielded from outside influence. But, collecting bids for paving a road, as discussed as a comparison RFP process, is by nature extremely different from evaluating proposals for operating and programming a live theater space.

Garcia said there was intent on City Staff’s part to include the Burbank Cultural Arts Commission in the RFP process once a recommendation on a winner had been made, before bringing the matter before City Council for approval.

Some discussion of the unusual nature of bringing the incomplete RFP before the City Council was held, as well as the subjective aspect of an RFP for a performing arts space.

“You’re considering what vendor makes the best use of the facility for the patrons,” McDougall said to Council, as he outlined some options for Council to choose how to complete the RFP process for the Burbank Center Stage.

“There were nine theaters in Burbank when I served on the Burbank Cultural Arts Planning Committee that wrote the City’s Arts In Public Places plan in 2009,” Flynn stated, who also served on the Cultural Arts Commission from 2010-2017. “Today there are four.”

“It is important to note that a professional theater company is not equivalent to a community theater,” Flynn said, echoing what several others emphasized during public comment. “They are both valuable but serve very different purposes.”

“For Career Technical Education we need intern placement with professionals,” Flynn added, noting that only The Colony Theatre has demonstrated the largest breadth and longest history of partnerships with entertainment professionals, students, low-income and diverse uses and audiences for a live performance space such as the Burbank Center Stage.

Several people, both on and off the record, spoke to the many beneficial actions and support the Burbank YMCA has done for Burbank, its schools and community. They expressed frustration and confusion as to why the fitness and wellness organization, with its own burgeoning youth theater program, would reach so far outside their usual lanes of expertise to aim for the only Burbank space housing a professional live theater.

“I like the Burbank YMCA and very much appreciate the many valuable programs that they have created for our community. They make a positive impact in countless ways for Burbank families. The YMCA is not at fault here,” commented Weerts. “Mary Cutone said it perfectly when she spoke to Council stating (paraphrased) that ‘the Y’s only offense is that they responded to an open RFP and provided their best vision for the space.’”               

“The offense is that of City Staff for opening this RFP in the first place, having not followed through on the proposal that they intended to bring to contract with The Colony in February of 2018, and having not engaged with stakeholders to determine if a new direction for the space was even warranted,” she said.

“The outpouring of support for The Colony Theatre from BUSD students past and present, parents, teachers, theater goers, performers, union and county arts leaders at Tuesday night’s Council meeting demonstrates that there wasn’t a need,” Weerts also said. “Garcia herself noted that it wasn’t an obligation but ‘best practice.’”

“So I ask again, WHY OPEN ANOTHER RFP? Why not invest in the theater company that we have in the space and give them the opportunity to see what they can do with a long-term lease?” Weerts emphasized.

“It is very disappointing that it’s come to this. Two of the proposers have worked together in that shared space and my worry is that whatever we do.. will have a lasting effect on that relationship,” commented Anthony. “We will be the bad guys. We’re going to make the choice.”

Council members discussed the challenges and desire for finding the fair way forward, while discussing the opaqueness of the scoring and assessments completed so far.

“It’s not about The Colony, The Y, The Greenhouse,” Council member Zizette Mullins said. “It’s about how did the process go.”

“I do appreciate Staff’s acknowledgment that ‘we could have maybe done a better job early on in reaching out and doing some sort of assessment or evaluation and getting some feedback,'” Mullins also said. “We’re all here today because of the mistrust, the questionable process… a lot of concerns were raised not only here tonight but with the hundreds of emails we’ve received.”

“I am not confident in the other subject-matter experts who have been brought in,” Anthony commented. “When I originally read this, I had thought that three of the people conducting interviews managed professional theaters that happened to be in one of these three cities.”

“Tonight I learned that, no, it was the community theater of the city government that had been brought in. Here’s why I have a problem with that. The RFP that we’re putting forward was a vision for a community theater in the City of Burbank. I don’t want a community theater,” he continued. “I want a high-end performance space that does some community theater but also professional shows, also non-profit outreach allowing folks from a low-income background and different demographics that don’t normally see theater to be able to come into this space.”

“I have no doubt in my mind that the three applicants all have their own vision on how to make that possible but seeing who was in the room at the time, I don’t think they have the ability to fully understand that vision, because Brea, Beverly Hills and Thousand Oaks are not the Media Capital of the World, we are.”

“I firmly agree with all my colleagues that we need to have that final say,” added Anthony.

After some deliberation, Council members decided to plan a special meeting to be held on an as-yet-undetermined date, to interview the proposers again and then make a final decision on which proposer will enter negotiations for the Burbank Center Stage space.