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An open letter to Zygi Wilf: Time for you to help us

Two of Minnesota’s premier cultural institutions are deep in the red and need help.

In 2011, the Wilf Family Foundation spent $5.5 million on a vast number of charities all over the world. But it donated only $22,500 or 0.4 percent to nonprofits here in the Twin Cities.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

I hope this letter finds you healthy and happy. For certain you should be happy because we Minnesotans have done some heavy lifting to make your dreams come true. If all goes well, in 2016, the Vikings — your team — will be moving into a spanking-new $975 million stadium to which we taxpayers will be contributing nearly $500 million, plus interest. 

Yes, I realize that much of the money will come from a tax on electronic pull-tab gambling, something the state never had before. But you know as well as I do that we could have put that money to use for our own citizens, for schools, transit, housing, health care and parks. With that kind of dough, we could have transformed desperately poor North Minneapolis into a garden of the gods or rerouted I-94 so that it didn’t slice St. Paul in two.

And, already you have prospered. According to Forbes, since we voted you the dough, the value of the Vikings franchise rose by 22 percent to $975 million, of which about two-thirds is debt-free.

If we hadn’t granted you the money, you would have had to try to move the Vikings to Los Angeles. And Lord only knows what kind of deal those Hollywood creative-accounting chiselers would have given you. So, you have to agree that we’ve really, really helped you.

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Now I am calling on you to help us. 

I understand that you make your home on Park Avenue in New York City, in a $19 million four-bedroom apartment — and I for one don’t begrudge you. I’ve seen the pictures, and it looks lovely — I should only be invited for a cocktail party. The point is that you’re here only occasionally; so you probably don’t realize that we have a bit of a crisis on our hands.

You see, two of our premier cultural institutions, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, are deep in the red. This year, the orchestra suffered a $6 million loss. And chamber group is running a deficit of $1.2 million. 

To close its budget gap, the board of the Minnesota Orchestra asked musicians for a 30 percent cut in annual pay, from an average of $135,000 to $82,000. Similarly, members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra would see their pay drop from an average of $78,223 to $62,500 or $50,000, depending on whom you believe.

I am almost embarrassed even to mention such piddling amounts to a guy like you who thinks in tens of millions and uncomplainingly pays Christian Ponder and Adrian Peterson humongous salaries to play a few games. In any case, musicians at the Minnesota Orchestra said “no,” so management locked them out of the concert hall, and canceled performances through Nov. 25. The SPCO musicians are still negotiating, but their management has told them that if they don’t agree to the pay cut by Sunday, they’ll have to take their cellos and oboes and hit the bricks.

Since you are an out-of-towner, you may not have attended performances of either group. That’s a shame, because both are impressive. Even if you’re not a music lover, however, you have to agree that, like the Vikings, the orchestras put our towns in the top tier of cities; without them, we’d just be, oh, I dunno, a large version of Dubuque.

Some of our musicians are looking for and taking jobs elsewhere. If there’s too much staff erosion, we might have to replace our virtuosos with musicians who play at bar mitzvahs and weddings. Didn’t something like that just happen to you? As I recall, it had to do with substitute referees, and it didn’t work out too well.

So here’s my pitch: Please, sir, plug those deficits and save our orchestras. The whole bill would come to a mere $7.2 million.

Can’t afford it, you say? I realize that times are tough in the real estate business, but Sports Illustrated estimated your fortune at $310 million. That’s about $60 million more than Mitt Romney’s got, and people think he’s pretty comfy.

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But I don’t ask you to take the dough right out of your pocket. You can use some of funds you’ve considerately set aside in your philanthropic foundations. I checked with Guidestar, the database of nonprofits, and you’ve got 25 of them. I don’t know why there are so many; some had no assets, but that’s your business. The two largest, however, were worth about $200 million.

In 2011, the largest, the Wilf Family Foundation, with $114.5 million in the bank, earned $14.3 million. (And by the way, could you tell us the name of the financial adviser who managed to get a better than 10 percent return?) It spent $5.5 million on a vast number of charities all over the world. But it donated only $22,500 or 0.4 percent to nonprofits here in the Twin Cities. Some $20,000 went to the Vikings Children’s Fund and $2,500 to the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. The record of the Z S & M Wilf Foundation was little better. Of the $3.7 million it distributed, a scant $2,000 went to Twin Cities groups.

Is that any way to treat us?

You might be grumbling that since acquiring the Vikings in 2005, you’ve spent $100 million of your own dough on them — or so I’ve read. But that’s a business investment. If you sold the team tomorrow, you’d still enjoy a magnificent profit — a long-term capital gain, no less, taxed at a maximum of 15 percent.

And I hate to bring this up — but I am sure that Lester Bagley, your PR guy, has told you: You’re not universally popular in these parts. “Carpetbagger” is about the nicest thing people say. I thought of linking you to some of the unflattering items bloggers have written, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings. Should you be curious, you can go to Twitter and search under the hashtag #Wilfare.

If, however, you pulled our orchestras out of their respective financial holes, those critics would have to take it all back. Even people who gnash their teeth and punch holes in walls upon hearing your name would be forced to concede, “Well, I guess he’s not so bad after all.” Polishing your reputation is surely worth $7.2 million. And such a generous donation would no doubt prompt God to permanently transfer  your name to the Book of Life instead of consigning it to the Book of the Sub-Optimum.

In conclusion, I hope your checks will soon be in the mail.