THE MILLER COMMUNITY CENTER AT 19th and Harrison is one of five new neighborhood centers built under former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. Like the others, it's a spacious, lively place where kids and adults can go to shoot hoops for free, or study dance, or hang out.

It doesn't take much brain power to see that, when it comes to keeping juvenile crime in check, building more community centers is smarter than building more jails. Mayor Paul Schell and the City Council want to expand on Rice's legacy. They plan to ask Seattle voters to support building or restoring five more community centers throughout Seattle, including centers at Yesler Terrace, High Point, and South Lake Union, at the former Sand Point naval base, and at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. They also plan to open two new "service centers," and hire enough people to keep all 17 community centers open seven days a week.

The problem is, they've tied the money to a city-wide vote on funding--$29 million--for the Seattle Center Opera House. Council member Nick Licata had hoped to split the vote into two separate measures, so citizens who like community centers but not opera could vote accordingly. But Licata's proposal died last week, jeopardizing the community center money with a levy that seems wide open to the kind of populist revolt that killed the Seattle Commons and ran the 2012 Olympics out of town.

Details of the plan aren't final yet, but the mayor's proposal calls for a $72 million package, split 50/50 between the neighborhoods and Seattle Center, with nearly half of the money going into the Opera House. The measure will appear on the ballot this November as a renewal of a similar levy passed in 1991.

Seattle Center's hard-working lobbyists are determined to put the right spin on the levy campaign. For starters, they've stopped referring to the Opera House as an Opera House. It is now being billed as the new Community Performance Hall. Catchy, huh? Well, don't get used to it. Once the vote goes through, Seattle Center plans to sell a $15 million "naming gift" for the hall, in the tradition of Safeco Field, KeyArena, and Benaroya Hall.

The 3,000-seat Opera House was built in 1927 and remodeled in 1962 for the World's Fair, and last year a task force spelled out the need for another remodel. Seattle Center spokesperson Kym Allen, who worked as a legislative assistant to City Council President Sue Donaldson for seven years, says the remodel is long overdue. "We're talking about a 72-year-old building," she says. "It needs help. Either we renovate it for the next 72 years, or we're going to be looking at Band-Aid approaches that really won't fix the problem."

Allen characterizes Seattle Center as "a large community center" that has a huge constituency base (a million people go through the Opera House each year). She predicts that the levy campaign will be as successful as last year's library bond vote, which raised money to rebuild both the downtown library and smaller neighborhood libraries.

"A strong community doesn't 'Balkanize' its city," says Allen. "You don't make distinctions. You keep the assets together. You don't pit them against each other."

Licata says he's not necessarily against fixing up the Opera House--he's just not sure it should be a top priority at a time when the council can't find money to install public toilets downtown. He doesn't recall hearing people clamoring for a remodeled Opera House while he was campaigning in 1997.

Licata worries that by tying the community centers to the Opera House, the city risks losing support from voters who are fed up with paying for pet projects downtown, particularly ones they can't afford. Taking out a library book--or an opera CD--is free, but opera tickets in Seattle run from $30 to over $100.

"I think people are going to say they've had enough," says Licata. "I don't think we'll get support out there."

Licata is also wary of the funding schedule for the Opera House. The remodel is expected to cost $110 million. In addition to the $29 million in the levy package and a Seattle Center campaign for private donations, the city is considering contributing more than $8 million in bonds.

But none of the private money will be donated until the city money is secure, and Licata resents that philanthropists are being allowed to re-arrange Seattle's funding priorities. It reminds him of Paul Allen's much-resented "gifts."

"The public agenda is being shaped by millionaire donors," says Licata. "That may be the way city politics is done sometimes, but I don't like it that way, and I don't think most people in the city like it that way."

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