Despers’ hard gift—how will they fund operating and maintenance costs?

Dennise Demming Monday 24 April 2023 Letters to the Editor Wired868

Congratulations to Despers on receiving their second multimillion-dollar gift from the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

Their first theatre gift remains closed, up the hill next to the community centre by the gorgeous, gigantic John Dende Statue resides—which was designed and created by a Laventille resident called Leo Warner.

The Desperadoes Steel Orchestra perform during the 2023 Panorama competition.
(Copyright Maria Nunes)

During the Covid pandemic, I had an opportunity to pay a site visit to the space. It brought back wonderful memories of listening to Pat Bishop lovingly bouffe the band members for mispronouncing their Pan is Beautiful winning rendition of “The Bartered Bride” by Bedřich Smetana as “de battered bride”.

I also relived the moments of looking to the left and seeing the lights at the top of the Lady of Fatima Church and looking to the right and enjoying the breathtaking view of Port of Spain.

Very few institutions get a second chance to get things right, so this TT$14 million building is a unique opportunity that Despers must get right—and the band will not get it right unless a carefully considered business model is created and implemented.

If it works, that business model might be used as a guide for Invaders who have been working on acquiring their own space for many years now. It might also be used by Phase 11 Pan Grove, which is also in the midst of sensitive negotiations to own its space.

The Desperadoes Pan Theatre.
(Copyright Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and the Arts)

The list of potential users for such a business model can go on and on.

The first challenge Despers face is that this location will not attract supporters. The same issues that chased them from up the hill continue and are intensified nationally. Even the US government, amidst its own decades-old epidemic of mass shootings and child killings, has included midtown Port of Spain on its list of places to avoid.

No matter how much I love Despers, fear of crime and violence will keep me away.

Queen’s Hall, NAPA, SAPA, and the Little Carib are all cultural spaces that survive based on state subvention. As a society, we have not worked out how to make cultural spaces sustainable and this Despers space can now be added to that list of spaces that require continued funding.

What is needed is a strategic plan that considers the long-term view of the sustainability of a creative space.

The success of this kind of project requires a specialized skill set that may not be available in the current configuration. It needs collaboration between business strategists, art administrators, cultural enablers, and financial wizards.

As the new owners of this $14 million space, I wonder how Despers will fund the operating and maintenance cost of the building.

An architect friend told me that a back-of-the-envelope maintenance formula is to budget 20% of the construction cost for maintenance.

Despers, I love you and wish you the best—but this is a hard gift to have received.

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