Greensboro Exploring Options for a Performing Arts Center

YES! Weekly | February 16, 2012
Everyone seems to agree the War Memorial Auditorium at the coliseum complex has seen better days, a fact that has become increasingly clear over the past few years as the number of events dropped dramatically and necessary repairs went untouched.

“The auditorium has done its duty [but] it’s functionally obsolete,” Mayor Robbie Perkins said at the city council’s Jan. 24 retreat.

Though the auditorium will continue to be used until events can no longer be booked or until it is unsafe or unsanitary, Coliseum Director Matt Brown and others agree it’s time to build a new performing arts center from scratch. Yet the two primary questions remain: How much will it cost, and where should it be located?

Council instructed the city manager’s office to look deeper into the cost of building a performing arts center, with downtown as the preferred location. On Jan. 27, interim City Manager Denise Turner Roth issued a memo outlining a number of details of the process and how to move forward, including a timeline culminating in a council vote June 19 so the general obligation bond can be on the ballot in the fall.

In the memo, Roth said an economic impact study, fundraising, design and engineering and community forums would happen over the next several months. The memo also said council is willing to consider $41 million in public financing for the project.

As part of his presentation before council at the retreat, Brown proposed a $36 million performing arts center with 3,600 seats to be built at the coliseum complex on Lee Street but council also discussed constructing it downtown after receiving a flood of phone calls and e-mails from residents.

Aside from a few comments by District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, who said there were too many obstacles to placing it downtown, the majority of the discussion focused on a potential cost increase of a downtown center. The coliseum complex is in Bellamy-Small’s district, but she was unavailable to comment on whether this affects her position.

Based on a preliminary cost estimate for land, parking and infrastructure, Roth said the coliseum site would cost the city $32 million to $43 million, while the downtown site would run $49 million to $72 million.

“[The difference] is significant: this estimated cost for downtown has to come down,” Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said at the retreat.

Council members and community members alike said there was no reason for a downtown site to be so much more expensive.

“It’s inaccurate to say a facility downtown would cost $29 million more,” said Zeke Vantreese, a downtown advocate who attended the retreat. “It will take some creativity to make it come in at the same amount, but it’s definitely doable.”

The report said the necessary 1,500 parking spaces were already available at the coliseum complex but would require $10-20 million to be built downtown.

Transportation Director Adam Fischer said when his department presented to a previous council about the need for 400 to 500 more downtown parking spaces two years ago, council members wanted to wait and see if a new parking deck could be built in conjunction with a large economic development project.

The need for additional parking in the next two to five years is based off daytime usage, as numerous decks sit mostly empty at night and only two are 50-75 percent full, he said.

“At night we could probably accommodate [performing arts center] events downtown with most of the parking that would be necessary,” said Fischer, who added that a center wouldn’t negatively impact traffic because of its size in comparison with daytime business traffic.

Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Ed Wolverton said there are at least 10 possible sites a performing arts center could be located downtown, many of which are owned by they city and are in close proximity to an existing parking deck.

“To categorize [a parking deck] as a cost for a downtown center was a little bit misleading,” Wolverton said of Roth’s report. “What was presented to city council lacked depth of understanding about downtown. It dramatically overstated the amount of funds that would be needed.”

If a center was built on land already owned by the city, or through an agreement with private owners who were supportive, the projected cost of $1 million to $3 million for land could come down significantly or become a non-issue, Wolverton said. Most of the sites are currently surface parking lots, but he would not say where specifically.

“We can actually kill two birds with one stone by building a performing arts center with a new deck downtown,” Vantreese said. “It’s not necessarily fair to lump that in and say it’s part of the cost of building it downtown.”

A center built on the coliseum site would be able to utilize some of the existing infrastructure of the complex, Brown said, but Wolverton said some downtown sites offered infrastructure access, too.

Brown did not have numbers available for the amount of anticipated staffing necessary for a separate center.

If private donations could fund the difference in cost, possibly as high as $15 million, a downtown location would be preferable, Perkins said.

“We do have existing decks and if you picked the right location you wouldn’t need a deck,” Perkins said at the retreat. “The theory behind a performing arts center downtown would be to encourage additional investment downtown.”

Downtown advocates cite an array of reasons to build it there, including economic benefits and following the model other cities have used.

Wolverton and others created a task force in 2010 to explore creating a performing arts center downtown after a community process identified it as one of six central priorities. A downtown location would provide patrons with walking access to more than 40 restaurants and would fit in with the broader cultural umbrella of downtown, he said.

Residents already voted down two similar bond proposals, and most center advocates agree that some level of public funding would be necessary. District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade said she supported the idea of building it downtown, but was against a bond item because of the difficult economic conditions of the city and residents.

“Until we get unemployment rate down, I don’t see how the people are going to be able to afford it,” Wade said at the retreat.

In order for voters to pass a bond proposal for part of the cost, which could potentially be offset by private donations and $6 million from a hotel/motel tax, more widespread education and discussion needs to happen, proponents say. At-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan emphasized there would be a community hearing on the issue, but many want to go further.

Walker Sanders, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, said that’s where they come in.

“The role that we’d probably be most helpful in playing is that of neutral convener,” Sanders said. “For this to go forward and be successful, we need to open it up for people to talk about. This is a 50-year investment.”

Sanders said the Community Foundation would also help explore private fundraising and hoped to pull together a diverse task force to work on the center.

District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann also said the community should be educated and involved about the plans.

“People need to see the benefit,” Hoffmann said at the retreat. “I’ve got a feeling that this will be a slam dunk.”

Regardless of where it is built, the center should be designed and managed by Brown and the coliseum staff, Perkins said. While the process wouldn’t be easy, Perkins said it was important to involve the community and try to build it downtown.

Since opening in 2008, the Durham Performing Arts Center, or DPAC, has become the fourth highest grossing performing arts center in the nation, greatly benefiting downtown Durham, said United Arts Council of Greensboro President Tom Philion.

When Brown was asked how much money a center could generate, he said it was easier to say how much Greensboro was losing to DPAC.

“DPAC has successfully captured the market,” said Philion, adding that around 6 percent of the Durham audience traveled from Greensboro. “A performing arts center is critical to this city remaining competitive whether you are talking about attracting employers or people looking at Greensboro as a place they want to live.”

DPAC’s website trumpets its clout in the region.

“From Greensboro to Durham, Chapel Hill to Cary… the Durham Performing Arts Center has become the award-winning home for superstar entertainment in the Triangle region,” it reads.

In order to remain competitive, Brown said, it is more important to build a performing arts center quickly than where exactly it is constructed.

“The longer we wait… we’re going to be embarrassed one day if we don’t have the facility,” he said.

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