Judith Harris and Mel Katz went to a San Diego City Council committee hearing this week to explain why San Diegans should trust them with $32.5 million.
The two biggest boosters of the downtown schoobrary project have pledged they would raise that amount by January 2012 to finance the second and final part of the $185 million main library/charter school hybrid. Without that money, San Diego taxpayers could be on the hook for the remaining bill, which right now is nearly the equivalent of the Library Department’s annual budget.
Harris and Katz told the council committee they’ve targeted donors and are betting that funding will materialize once the city sticks a shovel in the ground and begins construction. But they acknowledged their promises had a limit.
“I think you have to honestly say that fundraising is a leap of faith,” Harris said.
The city could take that leap as soon as June 28, when the full council is expected to decide on the schoobrary’s construction.
The leap, fundraising experts said, is significant, but not Grand Canyon-sized.
In an interview, Donald Fellows, the president and CEO of Marts & Lundy fundraising consulting firm and former development director at the University of San Diego, called the fundraising achievement “very achievable.” He did note risks, however, such as the economy returning downward.
“That amount of money in that time frame is not unrealistic at all,” Fellows said. “In fact, my sense is of the San Diego community that’s very doable.”
At worst, Fellows said, boosters might miss the January 2012 deadline, but he believed they would ultimately meet their goal.
Timing, though, is important. A $20 million state grant requires the city finish the schoobrary. A city official said during this week’s committee hearing the state has set an August 2014 deadline for opening the schoobrary before the city would have to repay the grant.
David Greco, a vice president at fundraising consultant Nonprofit Finance Fund, was less sanguine about boosters’ chances.
He called the $32.5 million target “difficult, but it won’t be impossible.” Still, he didn’t believe boosters would reach their goal and that meant taxpayers would pay more for the schoobrary than they already are.
“I think there’s probably a better than average possibility that yes, at some point along the way that taxpayers and the city are going to have to provide either some kind of direct or indirect support for the project,” Greco said. “What that amount is and if that amount is reasonable or not, I think is the better question.”
Even if taxpayers didn’t backfill the project with further funds — so far $120 million in public dollars will go toward the schoobrary — Greco said the city might have to guarantee a private loan so boosters could finish paying their share.
But both Fellows and Greco supported library supporters’ contention that they can expect to raise more money once construction began. Prospective donors, they said, have more confidence they’ll be contributing to a project that would be completed.
It was typical, they said, for large capital projects — even those involving public funds — to start without full funding, especially when projects have extenuating circumstances. (An Aug. 1 deadline to begin construction set by the state grant would be one in this case.)
“Libraries, schools, obviously any type of big community centers I would think in general most of those usually are required to start before they get all the financing in place,” Greco said.
At this week’s committee meeting, both Harris and Katz tried to reassure council members they would make good on their promises. Long criticized for keeping their current donors secret, they said they would reveal their names prior to the June 28 vote. They also said they had backers that guaranteed the $30.8 million already pledged toward the project.
Councilman Tony Young said he was heartened by their assurances, but agreed that the council would be taking a leap should it approve the project. Who, he asked, would pay if donations fell short?
“I don’t know,” Young said, “and that’s the part that we have to walk into this with eyes open.”
— LIAM DILLON