Ex-Frisco mayor Mike Simpson confident in new role as arts hall fundraiser


by By ED HOUSEWRIGHT / The Dallas Morning News


Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:45 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 12:24 PM

Mike Simpson just accepted a daunting task: trying to raise $20 million in this economy.

That's the amount needed to start construction on the long-delayed Collin County arts hall. Mr. Simpson was named its executive director last week.

His charge is to generate enthusiasm and donations for the 2,100-seat hall. Otherwise, the multiuse venue supported by voters in Allen, Frisco and Plano could remain a dream.

"I'm confident we can get there," Mr. Simpson said.

Arts officials say he is uniquely qualified to bring the $85 million project to fruition. As mayor of Frisco for six years, Mr. Simpson oversaw a booming town that approved almost $400 million in bonds for new facilities.

"I think he'll be a great success," said Steve Matthews, president of the Arts of Collin County Commission, which oversees the hall.

Mr. Simpson replaces James Baudoin, who resigned in June. He had been executive director for three years and helped complete the hall's design. But he said he became frustrated by funding problems and construction delays.

Frisco Mayor Maher Maso, who succeeded Mr. Simpson in May, predicts Mr. Simpson can hit the fundraising target. Mr. Maso is vice president of the commission but didn't vote on Mr. Simpson's selection because of their close ties.

"Mike knows the communities involved in this project inside and out," Mr. Maso said. "He has a lot of relationships with the corporations that could potentially help fund this."

Mr. Simpson said he must create more awareness of the hall. It would be the centerpiece of a 124-acre park near Custer Road and State Highway 121 in Allen. Even though the project has been discussed for seven years, many area residents have never heard of it, Mr. Simpson said.

"I'm totally blown away every day when I talk to people who don't know about the project," he said. "When they hear about it, they say, 'We'll give something.' "

Mr. Simpson is seeking donations of any amount, from $50 to $5 million and beyond. In recent years, arts officials have focused on gifts of $1 million or more. They succeeded in raising $7 million in private funds.

Combined with $60 million in public money, backers have about 75 percent of the necessary funds. The shortfall stands at $18 million.

Mr. Simpson wants to raise $20 million within a year to cover any possible increases in expenses.

Along with a team of volunteers, Mr. Simpson plans to deliver a barrage of fundraising talks throughout Collin County and beyond. To lure big donations, officials have several dozen naming opportunities. For instance, a donor's name could be on part of the building.

The hall's completion date has been pushed back numerous times because of fundraising problems.

The earliest it could open is 2012.

If that date holds, it would be 10 years after Allen and Frisco voters each approved $19 million for the hall. Plano voters approved the same amount in 1995. Collin County commissioners later kicked in $3 million to complete the public share.

Mr. Simpson said he's not discouraged by the long delay. Once completed, the arts park could benefit families for generations, he said.

"I'm passionate about this," he said.