The MACC: Back on Track, or Under Attack?

The city approves a new board for the Mexican-American Cultural Center -- and the center's previous shepherds cry foul.

A model of what the Mexican-American Cultural Center will look like from Town Lake
A model of what the Mexican-American Cultural Center will look like from Town Lake

Twenty years in the making, Austin's multimillion dollar Mexican-American Cultural Center is nearly under way; groundbreaking at the MACC's Town Lake site is planned for February. The cast of characters who might attend that ceremony has undergone a dramatic change, with the City Council's Nov. 7 approval of an ordinance creating a nine-member MACC advisory board. This board, like Austin's 60-plus other boards and commissions, will include members appointed by the council: five representing the Latino arts community, two from the business community, and two from the city at large, says Veronica Briseño, aide to Council Member Raul Alvarez, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Mayor Gus Garcia. Members should be appointed by early next year.

With this move, the council dropped the other shoe on the MACC, asking the new advisory board to handle responsibilities formerly within the purview of the nonprofit Center for Mexican-American Cultural Arts. Earlier this year, the city terminated its lease agreement with CMACA, an organization created to oversee construction of and operate the city-owned facility, approved by voters in 1998 (on its second spin at the ballot box; it was narrowly defeated in 1992). Briseño says that creating the advisory board was partly a symbolic move -- an attempt to overcome a past fraught with false starts, infighting caused by stakeholders' divergent visions for the MACC, and tension caused by CMACA's troubles in fundraising. "At the time we ended the agreement, we pretty much decided it was the best way to go for everybody," said Briseño. "It was a mutual divorce."

But CMACA Chairman Melvin Wrenn believes the city never should have ended its contract with his organization. "The city has taken control of the process and of the property," he said. "They said it was going to be community-controlled for 100 years, then 50 years, and now the city has complete control." He believes the advisory board creates a no-win situation for all parties involved: "They'll be puppets for the city."

Even after its lease was terminated, CMACA had not given up its efforts to stay involved in the MACC project. In the spring, Gloria Andrus, president of the CMACA board, sent a proposal to Deputy City Manager Joe Canales offering to give back to the city responsibility for day-to-day operations and the hiring and firing of MACC staff other than the executive director. At the same time, Andrus wrote, CMACA wanted to remain a totally autonomous organization, to get money from the city to replenish its $100,000 initial endowment as the budget permitted, and to have the power to approve or reject all programming at the MACC.

In late May, Canales responded to Andrus that her proposal lacked an organized business plan to keep the money flowing into the MACC -- a key stipulation of the lease agreement. "Your proposal does not offer any compelling basis for entering into a new agreement with the city," he concluded.

Despite many meetings since then between the city and CMACA in an effort to smooth things out, "the relationship is still not amicable," notes Garcia's executive assistant Paul Saldaña. At one such meeting several weeks ago, CMACA members requested that Garcia and Alvarez postpone their MACC-board ordinance until they had a chance to respond; as it was, the motion was approved Nov. 7 without public discussion. CMACA "feels they should have some formal role with the city in relation to the MACC," said Saldaña. "I don't know if that's going to be able to happen." For the most part, Garcia is yielding on MACC matters to Alvarez, who took over shepherding the issue after Garcia's initial retirement from the council in 2000.

Phase I of the current master plan for the MACC includes two theatres, an outdoor plaza, a two-story multipurpose building, and a two-story parking garage; the design is sleek and streamlined. The city has $7.5 million set aside for Phase I, and construction should be complete by 2004 or early 2005. The MACC will not include a hotel -- an idea floated several years ago by CMACA board members as a way to generate revenue for the project. That plan was scrapped amid fears that a hotel would compromise the design of the site. "There was concern about losing the focus of it being a cultural center," Briseño said.

Wrenn of CMACA says he's concerned the MACC will lose its focus as a representation of the community. His organization has spoken with several law firms regarding breach-of-contract issues, he said, adding that a national civil rights organization may launch a discriminatory lawsuit against the city. "Any time you have either a black or brown organization with a role in Austin, the City Council takes control of that project and forces [the organization] to do what it wants done. The only reason why they did this was because [CMACA] was a brown organization. It's the same thing that's been happening since 1928, when the city pushed all the black people across I-35."

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MACC, Mexican American Cultural Center, Gus Garcia, Raul Alvarez, Paul Saldaña, Veronica Briseño, Center for Mexican American Cultural Arts, CMACA, Melvin Wrenn, Gloria Andrus, Joe Canales, 1998 bonds

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