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HVAC failure amid hot weather displaces events at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

The Oregon Symphony relocated three concerts to the Keller Auditorium but future events are uncertain, as repairs could take months.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Amid record heat in Portland, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was left scrambling after its cooling system failed on April 27. According to Metro, which operates the concert venue, the damage is irreparable and the system must be replaced.

Without a working HVAC system, a number of scheduled events have had to relocate or consider cancelation, including the Oregon Symphony. The symphony moved three performances on May 13-15 to the Keller Auditorium several blocks away.

“I’m a little disappointed,” said concert-goer Kimberly Matheson. “We have great seats at the Schnitz and we really enjoy the acoustics and our view, but things happen.”

Others were relieved by the decision

“It was pretty dang warm [in the Schnitz],” said concert-goer Steve Simmonds. “I'm glad they made this call and moved us here.”

Oregon Symphony President Scott Showalter said so far, the HVAC failure has cost the symphony at least $30,000. Reasons include lost revenue from ticket refunds, paying musicians more to play in the heat and the costs of switching venues. He fears it could get much worse; after Monday, the Keller won't be available for the symphony's remaining concerts this season.

“If we're not able to perform for the rest of the season we'll lose well over a million dollars in revenue,” Showalter said, “Which then puts next season in jeopardy.”

Metro hopes it won't come to that. Still, they say it will take up to eight months to permanently replace the Schnitzer’s HVAC system.

“Getting a new cooling tower on top of a building that old with engineering and permitting, you can imagine is something months and months down the road,” said Steve Faulstick, Metro’s general manager of visitor venues.

In the meantime, Faulstick said Metro wants to rent a portable chiller that would pump cool air into the concert hall. If the city permits it, Faulstick said they could have it in place in about a week.

“We're optimistic with the short-term fix, the cost of that we're still exploring,” Faulstick said. “We know that the rent alone is going to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to do that.”

The Oregon Symphony knows about counting costs. They survived the pandemic and are now fighting decreased ticket sales. Showalter said patrons tell them their biggest reason for staying away is concern that downtown isn't safe.

“We're already fight that, we're seeing historic rate hikes by Metro and a severe reduction in our grants through the arts tax,” Showalter said. “So now to have this additional crisis up on top of us is just debilitating.”

It's unclear what the symphony will do for next weekend's concerts before the temporary cooling system arrives. Showalter said there's a chance they may try using the Schnitz again and play with the doors open. They've also purchased bottled water for guests. They don't want to cancel any of the concerts but Showalter said they may have to, depending on the weather.

“It's been punishing,” he said, “And this crisis is really just the terrible icing on the cake.”

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