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Taliesin Globe-Miami Studio Project loses funding amid unfulfilled expectations

By Aimee Staten & Linda Gross

The widespread optimism that surrounded the launch of last year’s Globe-Miami Studio Project, which many hoped would spur economic development and make the region a tourist attraction, appears to be gone. It has been replaced by hope from some that the investment this community made in the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture (Taliesin) will pay off as promised.

Others, however, say they have seen too little fulfillment of the initial promises that the school laid out in its fundraising campaign here, which raised $785,000 in 2015. Just 18 months into a four-year project, the school is losing nearly a quarter of the pledged monies from its initial investors.

The Gila County Industrial Development Authority (IDA), whose eleventh-hour “proxy pledge” of $200,000 was instrumental in launching the Globe-Miami Studio Project, recently informed Taliesin it was withdrawing its pledge, as have individual investors whose pledges total $15,000. Other major stakeholders, including the United Fund of Globe Miami ($400,000), BHP Billiton ($50,000) and Capstone Mining ($100,000) did not respond to inquiries on the matter.

Taliesin Dean Aaron Betsky acknowledged the loss of support but said the school is “fully committed to a further two and a half years’ worth of work” in Globe-Miami and that they hope to remain involved “long after that.”

In a written response to questions from GMT, Betsky said the school has received $154,000 in pledges so far and has spent $39,000 in cash on the Studio Project. He pointed out that “countless hours of time” from teachers, staff, students and volunteers have gone into the project.

“We did this with great pleasure and will continue to do so,” Betsky wrote.

IDA withdraws $200,000 citing lack of appreciable value, other reasons

Sandy Palmer, manager of the IDA, said she remembers the presentations by Jason Donofrio, the school’s director of development, when he spoke “passionately about FLLW’s interest in Globe-Miami and rural development as a whole as he outlined a four-year studio project, saying the school’s vision was to make Globe-Miami a catalyst for redevelopment in rural communities around the U.S.”

Although the IDA was not in a position to fund the school’s campaign, Palmer said they were excited about Donofrio’s presentations, which reflected the school’s intention to focus on the Highway 60/70 corridor, both downtown districts and the gateways.

Donofrio emphasized that Taliesin is not just a design school, but could and would use its influence to bring tourism, corporate sponsorships and investment to the area. Both in the presentations and the school’s synopsis of the project, Donofrio stated the school would purchase materials and provide “boots on the ground” to implement designs. The IDA and others saw statements like this as adding tremendous value to the prospects of the four-year studio project that went beyond designs provided by students.

When it became apparent that despite raising $585,000 from the community, Taliesin was still going to be short of its $2 million funding goal, Palmer said Donofrio discussed a “proxy pledge” that would buy him time. She said he stressed that with federal and private grants and the mines’ annual contributions, it would be no trouble for Taliesin to raise the $200,000 it needed. The school just needed more time.

“Jason promised that any/all additional donations from the mines and/or other sources would be applied toward the IDA’s $200K pledge, making it a community proxy pledge,” Palmer said.

Donofrio abandoned that promise as soon as the school was awarded $70,000 from FMI’s Community Investment Fund last June, according to Palmer. Palmer said that when she mentioned she was grateful $70,000 had been raised toward the $200,000 proxy pledge, Donofrio denied ever asking the IDA to pledge in proxy for the community.

She said Donofrio went on to say Taliesin was not responsible for soliciting federal or private grants, corporate sponsorships or any additional funding for the Studio Project on behalf of Globe-Miami.

It was during that conversation that Donofrio’s lack of interest in the project became obvious, and his conversations shifted from emphasizing how much Taliesin wanted to do, to defending how little they were actually planning to do, Palmer said.

The IDA is withdrawing its $200,000 pledge, citing, among its reasons, a lack of appreciable value in the work and the fact that it is FLLW who is assigning price (value) rather than allowing the community to concur with the value assessment of the project.

Betsky recently described Taliesin’s role as one of helping to implement ideas that come from the community rather than taking initiative in developing aspirations, strategies and plans.

“I would like to note that we have said from the beginning that we are not coming in with grand plans or overall strategies,” Betsky said. “We want to and are working with the communities in Globe Miami to find out what they need and to what they aspire, collecting ideas and information and then working to make those dreams and desires concrete. That means that we have not presented big, expensive designs but things that can and should be done. After a year and a half, we are beginning to implement some of those projects.”

The latest Taliesin project focuses on Inspiration School

The Inspiration School project may be an exception to avoiding big, expensive designs.

Since January, the Studio Project has been working on the old Inspiration School in Miami at the request of school administration. Accessible only by a narrow one-way street, the school has been abandoned for decades. Glen Lineberry, principal of Miami High School, said the project is an attempt to turn “vices into virtues” for one of the district’s properties. He is excited about having Taliesin develop concepts for teacher housing and public spaces in the old building.

Speaking of the Studio Project’s work to date on the project, Lineberry said, “The ideas were great, and mostly not wildly expensive—aside from the elevated basketball court above the parking lot and some extraordinary window boxes.”

“We came away with a sense of what can be done, and our students (who worked on the project with Taliesin students) learned a great deal,” he said.

One estimate by a Taliesin student put the cost of the project at between $5 million and $7 million, but Lineberry said his plan is to “come up with answers to general costs by the end of the fall so a development plan can come together.”

Acoording to Betsky, several attendees at the public exhibition the design work in April expressed interest in sponsoring the work. Betsky says the school plans to present the work to one of the Valley’s largest architecture firms this summer for possible sponsorship.

Palmer and others point out this is the second ‘million-dollar’ design project the Studio Project has done in Miami, the first being the Miami Memorial Library last year, for which students envisioned a skywalk, a basketball court and “less room for books.” That project was roundly criticized by those in the local community for being impractical.

The Inspiration school in Miami is be1ng re-envisioned as teacher housing and a community center, but the viability of funding and location raises questions regarding whether the project meets the original intent of the Globe Miami Studio Project, which was a focus on the downtown districts, gateways and Highway 60 corridor. Photo by LCGross

Contract between GCC and Taliesin pending 

Betsky said the school is poised to sign a contract this summer with Gila Community College. Jay Spehar, GCC board president, expressed frustration with Taliesin after sitting down with Donofrio six months ago to present a contract proposal that outlined a clear path for the schools to work together. 

In June, Spehar notified the school that GCC would be seeking another partner if Taliesin couldn’t deliver. “I do not feel like FLW has considered GCC or Globe-Miami to be a priority,” he said.

As this article was going to press, Spehar said he had heard back from Taliesin, and things seemed to be moving forward. The contract gives Taliesin the option of inviting GCC to participate in projects, and GCC would have full control over the type and scope of work they engage in with community partners. GCC’s primary criterion is that any project they work on be public, not private. Spehar says he believes the arrangement will offer students “valuable experience in working with trained architects on public projects, while, at the same time, benefitting the local community.”

When contacted by GMT, Betsky stated in an email that the Studio Project has made some strides in the last year. He pointed to “small, do-able projects” by students that, according to Betsky,  garnered a great deal of support.

He went on to state in the email that Taliesin was “working with business owners and the city to secure funding to move (these projects) forward.”

Globe City Councilman Mike Stapleton said he is not aware of any such discussions, and added that he “has not heard anything from or about what Taliesin is doing locally for some time.”

Paul Jepson, city manager, said he met recently with Michael Twenty-Three, Taliesin’s newly hired project liaison, who asked for his help in identifying a potential location for a pop-up park. The park is one of the Taliesin projects designed for Broad Street last semester, and the original location was found to be untenable after the school discovered the design utilized private property and was not available for a park.

Jepson said he has not had any discussions with Taliesin on costs or project funding for the pop-up park. 

No Evidence to Point To

It is the lack of visible results delivered by Taliesin that has some early supporters withdrawing their support and money.

Business owners Jim and Kelly Moss, who have owned the Pickle Barrel Trading Post for more than 10 years, initially pledged $2,000 of their own money to Taliesin. After seeing few results after nearly two years, they said they do not intend to make good on that pledge.

“There has never been a bigger con job done to our community than this one,” Kelly said.

One of the reasons the Mosses lent their support to the project, Kelly said, was that Donofrio claimed the Frank Lloyd Wright School—which sees thousands of visitors each year at its Taliesin West campus in north Scottsdale—would send tourists to the community, as well. That hasn’t happened, she said, adding that a tourism guide which featured the schools’ project and was underwritten by advertising revenue from local businesses like the Pickle Barrel was never distributed by the school as Donofrio had promised.

Kelly said as far as she was concerned, Taliesin did not live up to its promises to this community. “As far as I know, they painted a bunch of cool-looking murals in Miami and then some of the students drew up an absurd architectural drawing for the Miami Library,” she said.

Bob Zache and his wife, Joanne, have sent in $3,000 of a $15,000 pledge, but Bob said “the school is not getting any more” of his money unless he “sees some results.” He pointed to the lack of visibility or acknowledgment that Globe-Miami is a “Taliesin Town.” 

“[Taliesin] said they were going to make a name here, and there is not one visible sign anywhere that would let anyone know that Taliesin chose Globe-Miami to put their mark on,” Bob said. “Part of the reason I put up the money is because they said they were going to promote the area and make us a ‘Taliesin town.’ I haven’t seen any evidence of that at all.”

Paint the Town rescheduled after its importance is stressed to Taliesin

One visible accomplishment locals can point to is the Miami Paint the Town weekend, a community event hosted by Taliesin last spring that brought out more than 150 volunteers to work with architectural students and staff to paint buildings and murals and clean up empty lots along the Highway 60 corridor.

The event was held at the behest of the Taliesin Advisory Committee, which Donofrio formed to serve as a sounding board and to offer direction and local support to Taliesin on the Studio Project.

According to one member, the committee saw Paint the Town as a way to both harness the energy of people who wanted to be involved with Taliesin’s efforts here but didn’t know how, and create a tangible project that would leave a positive impression on the community before the architectural students left the area for their annual five-month internship in Wisconsin.

Advisory committee members Molly Cornwell and Tom Foster took the lead and helped organize and implement the event, and Taliesin purchased nearly $10,000 in paint, supplies and food.

Reports GMT published while covering the event found varied opinions about the mural designs and colors selected, but there was a general consensus that the event marked a high point in the first year of the Studio Project, showing what could be accomplished when the community really engaged with the school.     

Therefore, it came as a surprise to many, including members of the Globe Downtown Association, when Donofrio announced at a March meeting with the association that the school was not planning a Paint the Town event in Globe this spring. Instead, it would be hosting an Earth Day celebration with local high school students on the grounds of Bullion Plaza.

Cornwell, who sits on the downtown association board, reminded Donofrio that many in the community were expecting the Globe event and suggested “it would be a huge mistake to drop it after telling people (during last year’s event) that next year would be their turn.” Donofrio expressed surprise in that meeting that there was local interest and promised to go back to the school to see what could be done.

Betsky confirmed that the school plans to “host a Globe Paint the Town event in November,” although it is not clear whether Taliesin will fund the event and participate as they did last year. Cornwell has said the downtown association is “keeping their fingers crossed” and will plan to offset costs depending on what Taliesen does, but their capacity to fund the event is limited. Cornwell said local artist Diana Tunis will be working up renderings for interested businesses and property owners. A date for the event has not been set.

Taliesin receives accreditation, but will school keep promises to Globe-Miami? 

Thanks in large part to the financial support of Globe-Miami, Taliesin announced in March that it had succeeded in maintaining accreditation. In the process, the school dropped the name of its famous founder and rebranded itself The School of Architecture at Taliesin.   

With local support crumbling from once staunch supporters, the question remains: After so many in Globe-Miami stepped up to support Taliesin in reaching its goal, will the school stand by its promises to our community?

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