Qwest merger: Could it hurt arts organizations like the DCPA?

Yesterday's acquisition of Qwest by CenturyTel may enrich the likes of Phil Anschutz, but it's raised concerns among politicos such as Governor Bill Ritter and senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, who fear a loss of jobs once the headquarters moves from Denver to Monroe, Louisiana.

But could there also be diminished support for Denver arts organizations?

Qwest has long been one of the most generous local corporations in this respect. But Randy Weeks, executive director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, to which Qwest has given approximately $3 million over the years, isn't ready to hit the panic button. Yet.

As Weeks notes, U.S. West, which merged with Qwest in 2000, set the tone for this philanthropic beneficence.

"Our original new play program was called the U.S. West Theatre Fest, and they funded it beginning in probably the early to mid-eighties -- and they continued to support it," Weeks says. For a time, the new play program was mothballed for financial reasons, but it's back now and "doing incredible stuff," he points out.

After the Qwest name took the fore, Weeks continues, "they were still what we would consider to be a major corporate sponsor, whether they were sponsoring a show as a producing partner or doing their bit as a major corporate player in the community in other ways.

"Actually, the timing is kind of ironic, because in just the last year, Ed Mueller, the current CEO, and his wife did a fabulous job as set-up chairs for Saturday Night Alive, which is our big fundraising event. They got on the phone and worked it hard, and while it wasn't quite record-breaking, it was a fantastically successful event considering the economic times."

The fiscal downturn over the past couple of years has presented challenges aplenty for the likes of the DCPA, due in part to cutbacks in donations from numerous corporate sponsors.

"I can't think specifically of an organization that pulled out entirely," Weeks maintains. "But there have been a couple that said, 'We can't do quite as much this year, but we hope to be able to do more later' -- and we've already seen that in a few cases. So corporate giving was down, but it didn't stop, and ticket sales didn't stop, either. But anything related directly to the markets impacted the DCPA, whether it was corporate giving, individual giving or endowments. When the market's down, endowments are down, and that serves to limit the amount of money an endowment can spin off on an annual basis."

At the same time, Weeks isn't ready to write off Qwest dollars.

"I'm assuming they will still be a major employer in the metro area," he says, "and we have wonderful relationships with other major corporations that don't necessarily headquarter in Denver. It is a challenge in some instances, because Denver, for whatever reason, doesn't seem to be one of those cities that is the major headquarters for a lot of corporations. That's usually when you get a higher level of corporate support -- when the CEO and chairman of the board live in town. But it's not as if we do badly. We have wonderful friends at MillerCoors, at Wells Fargo, at U.S. Bank. This community is generous both personally and corporately."

With that in mind, Weeks says, "We're watching carefully to see what occurs. You don't automatically assume that everything is going to change, and we're hopeful that somehow there's still going to be support. But you kind of wonder..."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts