Parsing the Cactus Proposals

What exactly is on the table for the legendary venue?

Parsing the Cactus Proposals

With only three weeks before the Texas Union Board is briefed on the potential future of the Cactus Cafe, the outlines of what the administration is offering are already been circulated. As of April 8, they are touting three proposals: But what's really in them?

The proposals are supposed to be bound within a "draft set of guiding concepts." They are:

* Continuation of current diverse Cactus Cafe programming to assure the preservation of the fundamental character of the venue, with expansion to include additional diverse programming.
* Continuation of daily (six days per week) cafe and bar operations with supervision by professional, experienced staff.
* Increased student involvement in operations and programming of, and performing in, the Cactus Cafe, working with professional and experienced staff, and interfacing with professional musicians, through student artist-in-residence and internship programs, and employment opportunities.
* Enhance student hands-on learning through the Cactus Cafe.
* A financially self-sustaining business model that will support the above.
* Provide a structure for short- and long-term community input and support.
First off, remember that these are only draft guidelines and therefore have no weight whatsoever yet. Secondly, the one option that doesn't explicitly appear to be on the table is closure. Thirdly, it seems to involve what many students have asked for, and that's the opportunity to become involved through internships and artist-in-residence programs. However, that brings us to our fourthly: Without a definition of who runs the place, and to what end, there's no context for their involvement yet. Fifthly, no sustainable business model, no deal, and that raises the question of who gets to define that model.

So these draft terms are so broad that without a clear plan that they don't rule much out. Now let's look at the proposed plans as announced via the UT press office:

1. A contractual relationship, by which the University enters into a contract with an external third party to manage the Cactus Cafe.
The most obviously troubling, both morally and legally. Former UT Austin Student Government president Liam O'Rourke said on multiple occasions that, due to IRS regulations about academic institution, only 10% of the floorspace can be run by external for-profit third parties. The union is at that cap already. The administration has said that it's only considering this as an option, but the implication has always been that to pull this off would require either breaking IRS rules, finding a loop hole, or terminating an existing tenant's contract to free up capacity.
2. A self-operating model by which a University office oversees the Cactus Cafe program, as it is currently managed.
Let's parse this one carefully. First, it says "a university office," which doesn't necessarily mean the Texas Union. Second, it says "Cactus Cafe program." Does that mean the space or does that just mean having musicians play somewhere under a banner that says "Cactus Cafe"?
3. A partnership with KUT Radio in which KUT will share Cactus Cafe programming responsibilities with student organizations. Under this proposal, KUT would book professional performers and manage the Cactus Cafe on agreed upon evenings during the year.

There's a superficial sense to this: At least KUT is affiliated with both the university and the Austin music scene. The admin gets to "save" the cafe, and KUT (still reeling from the bad PR from dumping Larry Monroe and Paul Ray) gets to look like the good guys.

The details are filled out somewhat in a document that the administration has called a vision draft, but there are some serious questions posed by this initial brief outline.

First up, no-one seems to know where this proposal came from. In announcing the options, the administration initially claimed that "conversations with community, faculty and student representatives have resulted in three options under consideration." Unfortunately for them, student representative Matt Portillo said this claim was "factually inaccurate" since he'd never heard of it before the April 7 meeting. After other members of the "Cactus Conversations" group threatened to withdraw from the meetings over this misrepresentation, the administration released a corrected version, saying they will be presenting this option for future discussion.

Some people may recall this is not the first time the admin had to walk back an inflated claim about student and community involvement.

Secondly, this deal would only cover the 150 days outside of the academic year. It's very light on details about the day-to-day operations of the cafe in the other 215 days on the year. There's a proposal to move that responsibility to a new office in the Student Event Center. Their job would be to get multiple nights of student-directed programming into the room. Hmm. That sounds intriguingly like the administration's original plan for the room, which Union Executive Director Andy Smith said was to place "back into the inventory of rooms that are reservable for recognized student organizations and faculty departments."

But here's where the situation gets screwy. In the latest version of option three, the administration proposes that "KUT will operate, via a university approved vendor, a Cactus bar with food and beverage sales in conjunction with performances." Why is that so significant? Because it means bringing in a third party vendor (see the problems with option one above.) It also enshrines the bifurcated management model that Friends of the Cactus Cafe representative Reid Nelson cited in his letter of resignation when he quit the Cactus Conversations.

In fact, it's arguably trifurcated: KUT gets it for 150 days a year, students for 215, with a third party vendor as possibly the only constant in the room.

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Cactus Cafe, UT, KUT, Matt Portillo, Reid Nelson

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