At last night’s meeting the Greensboro City Council voted 6-3 to approve an agreement with the nonprofit Community Foundation on the construction and operation of the proposed downtown performing arts center. Council members Tony Wilkins, Marikay Abuzuaiter and Sharon Hightower were the ‘no’ votes.

Discussion quickly became somewhat heated —Community Foundation president Walker Sanders was barely into his power point presentation when Wilkins started asking hard questions, concluding that the agreement basically amounted to a “blank check.” Fellow council member Mike Barber responded by saying –incredibly —that council members should vote on the agreement based on whether or not they believed the performing arts center would profitable.

Eventually debate bogged down —Mayor Nancy Vaughan lost control of the meeting when she allowed a speaker from the floor to ask a series of questions about the agreement. While there were a lot details, in the end it boils down to basically two scenarios.

First one is the city hires a crackerjack construction manager at risk who brings the project in at or under budget. Community Foundation collects all private donations and then some. The performing arts center is a resounding success, and the arts community as a whole benefits from the $1 arts sustainability tax on ticket prices. Everything is groovy.

Then there’s the other scenario — construction costs overrun, and the CM at-risk –thinking he’s got nothing to lose — asks the city to cover those overruns. Private donors default, and the city is asked to either bail out the Community Foundation’s debt or to cover the difference. And, despite drawing some decent acts, the performing arts center never quite meets revenue expectations, and the city is asked time and again to cover shortfalls. In 20 years, the Community Foundation either doesn’t want the place or no longer exists, and a future City Council is left to ponder what to do with it.

It’s risk, we get it.