The Performing Arts Center Question

To Be, or Not To Be?
Scott holstein
Arts advocates want a performing arts center built in Tallahassee|!!| but much of the money would have to come from a tax that currently supports road projects.

The soaring crescendos and dramatic decrescendos of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto rise and fall in the concert hall. Each note, no matter how soft, reverberates perfectly in the acoustically flawless venue, leaving the audience spellbound.

Later, the graceful, poised bodies of ballet dancers make visual music on the stage, using the curves of their limbs and strength of their cores to create a beautiful spectacle.

Perhaps on another day, Broadway singers will belt out “What is this feeling?” or a storyteller will relate vignettes from Florida’s history to wide-eyed schoolchildren.

This is the vision advocates have for a multimillion-dollar performing arts center that they want to build in downtown Tallahassee, bordered by Gaines, Bronough and Duval streets.

At first blush, making this fantasy a reality in Tallahassee seems like a great idea, but the flip side of the performing-arts-center coin is the reality of its cost. While many of the area’s most prominent residents have given the dream a thumbs up, a number of others are skeptical. While agreeing it would be great to have a performing arts center in town, they ask whether it’s worth diverting more than $90 million in tax revenues that currently support road and stormwater projects, plus an additional $15-30 million of bed tax dollars.

Before the center can ever become a reality, local residents will have to vote to tax themselves to pay for the lion’s share of the construction and operating costs.

The idea for a performing arts center is not new. In 1993, a similar proposal made it to the ballot and failed by about 500 votes. But advocates for the current project point out that there was no public awareness campaign conducted at the time of the first vote.

Prepare for these interest groups to wage a battle for the hearts and minds of the populace.


The Cost

A consulting group hired to research the possibility of building a performing arts center in Tallahassee came up with two different options, the first of which would cost about $176 million. Currently, performing arts center advocates are aiming for the second, smaller option, which would cost approximately $113.6 million.

That estimate was made in 2005, and the performing arts center likely wouldn’t be built until 2014 or 2015 at the earliest, members of the center’s board say. If inflation continues at the rate it has for the last 10 years, the smaller version will cost about $152.7 million at that point, as estimated U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator. That’s assuming that the original estimate was accurate and that the project doesn’t go over the amount budgeted.

Under the current financing plan, the bulk of the cost – between $70 million and $90 million – would be paid for by extending an existing 1-cent sales tax that currently pays for Blueprint 2000 road and stormwater projects. But before that could happen, the sales tax extension would have to be placed on the ballot and approved by voters. The Blueprint tax expires in 2019, but voters could vote on it before then if officials decide to put it on the ballot earlier. The ballot would likely specify that a portion of the tax, if approved, would go toward the performing arts center, Inzer said. 

The rest of the money would come from a combination of donations from private entities, money from the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency, tourist development tax revenues, state and federal contributions and grants.

After the performing arts center is built, it would cost about $1.7 million a year to operate, board members say. They hope to pay those costs through private donations and revenues from the fourth cent of the bed tax, a tax levied on hotel stays. In addition, they aim to ask the Leon County Commission to approve a fifth cent of bed tax money to support the center’s upkeep.


The Plan

A location for the center has already been determined. After looking at a variety of prospective sites – including the possibility of incorporating the performing arts center with the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center – the board decided to purchase the Johns Building, a downtown government building the state had put up for sale.

Paula Smith, a member of the center’s board of directors, recalls being thrilled when they found the location in 2005.

“I still remember, one morning we drove to that site, and it was like, wow, a light bulb went on,” she said. “It was an incredible 2.65 acres … surrounded by 6,200 already-built parking spaces.”

The demolition of the building was made slightly more complicated because special measures had to be taken to deal with the asbestos that had been used in its construction years ago. Nevertheless, the demolition, which cost an estimated $600,000 of bed tax money, was completed in late fall, and the site now is being reserved for the performing arts center.


Why Do We Need It?

Arts center advocates say the fact that Tallahassee doesn’t have a center is embarrassing, especially since the city is the state capital.

“I think it’s an essential addition to the cultural life of Tallahassee,” said Douglas Smith, director of opera activities for Florida State University. “All the major cities and state capitals that I’m familiar with have some kind of performing arts center.”

Proponents point out that the Civic Center has terrible acoustics, and FSU’s Ruby Diamond auditorium is too small and overbooked to accommodate all the performing groups in town.

Annually, “there are almost 500 concerts scheduled for the College of Music,” said Andre Fisher, director of choral activities at FSU. “With our current hall space, our facilities are really taxed.”

Board members of the performing arts center also say it’s important to plan for the future, and by the time the project is completed, Tallahassee’s population will likely have grown by 25 percent to 30 percent.

“One of the things to keep in mind is, this facility is not going to be built tomorrow,” said Leon County Clerk of Court Bob Inzer, a member of the board of directors. “Everybody believes that the current economic malaise will last forever, and this is probably not something that will ever be built, but I don’t believe that, and I don’t think our community believes that. We’re going to be prepared (to build) when we come out of this.”

Having the arts center in town will ultimately benefit the entire community by making Tallahassee a more attractive place for people to move to or visit, advocates say.

“These kinds of facilities are very important for the quality of life for our own citizens, but they are also extremely important when you look toward our ability to do good economic development,” said City Commissioner Debbie Lightsey. “A corporation can locate anywhere these days, because of the Internet. But we need to look toward providing all the amenities that people look for.”


What Will We Sacrifice?

Opponents of the plan say as much as it would be nice to have a performing arts center in town, the current plan to pay for it would take money away from needed infrastructure projects.

“Given the state of our school facilities, roads and stormwater projects, why anyone would think we should devote $200 million to a performing arts center is beyond me,” City Commissioner Allan Katz said.

He also pointed out that the economy is hurting and local governments can’t afford to be spending money on a performing arts center.

“We are in tough economic times, and there is no indication that things are going to get any better anytime soon,” Katz said.

Some object to funding the center using the tourist development tax, a tax on hotel stays that the Tourist Development Council collects to encourage out-of-towners to visit Tallahassee. The Leon County Commission approved a 1-percent increase to that tax in 2004, with the stipulation that the money generated – about $675,000 annually – go toward the performing arts center.

About $200,000 of that money was used to hire Theatre Projects Consultants of Connecticut, a prominent firm that does planning and design work for top-of-the–line performing arts venues such as the 2,265-seat Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The firm generated the $113 million estimate for the performing arts center.

“This performing arts center, I don’t think they have a study that shows it will increase tourism in Tallahassee,” said local attorney and hotel administrator Pace Allen.

“Hurricane evacuees and people here for weddings and funerals shouldn’t have to pay for our performing arts center,” he said.

Allen thinks it’s unfair to make visitors contribute toward an arts center when most of them aren’t even attending cultural performances in Tallahassee.

Last year, 3.7 percent of visitors attended some type of arts performance during their stay in Tallahassee, according to data compiled by FSU Professor Mark Bonn and presented to the Tourist Development Council. That’s compared to 12.9 percent who visited museums and historical sites and 9.4 percent who attended meetings or conferences.

Advocates for the performing arts center attribute the low numbers to Tallahassee’s failure to attract big-name performers. They argue that a high-quality performing arts facility would attract more prominent performers, attracting more tourists to performances.

“If we had a center, that would increase the numbers of people attending performances,” Lightsey said. “Many others will stay longer and spend additional money here. It takes a lot to turn your town into a destination. This is one of the ingredients.”

But Allen says he thinks tourist development tax dollars would be better spent on a welcome center near the Capitol.

“We need to have a welcome center or welcome station at I-10 where we can have people come and learn about Tallahassee,” he said.


Public Versus Private Money

The current financing plan for the performing arts center has the bulk of the money coming from government tax revenues. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of the funding is estimated to come from private donations.

So far, proponents of the center have collected about $1.4 million in donations and pledges from more than 600 private individuals. They’re also planning to launch a major gifts campaign, said campaign director Jean Frey, with the goal of eventually raising $20 million in private donations.

Duncan Webb, president of the theater consulting company hired to do the market analysis for the performing arts center, said it’s not unheard of for such a facility to have that type of funding ratio, with much of the money coming from tax revenues. He cited three examples of recently built performing arts centers, although in each of his examples, private giving comprised more than 30 percent of the capital costs.

With the education and state government as the largest employers in the area, Webb acknowledged that the relatively small pool of private donors imposes a fundraising challenge for the performing arts center’s board.

“You really don’t have unlimited private sector donations,” he said. “So they did have to be very careful about not overestimating how much they could raise.”

Proponents say people have been talking about building the center for years, but it’s never come to pass, and if officials continue to wait, it’s never going to happen.

“Everything that gets built with public money, there’s questions, as there should be,” said Ron Spencer, director of the Civic Center. Spencer noted the current objections people are raising about the performing arts center were made about the Civic Center when the city and county were considering building it more than 20 years ago. 

“Things don’t happen unless they go out on a limb,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody who’d begrudge that we have a Civic Center. We’ve not been a drain on the community. Almost all our years have been profitable. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d say we’d be better off without it.”

Nevertheless, those who oppose the current financing plan for the performing arts center point to the continuing need for high-cost major road projects, such as the widening of Capital Circle Northwest and Southwest. Paving just one portion of that project cost an estimated $107 million, according to the Blueprint 2000 Web site. Some, like Preston Scott, who hosts the morning show on radio station WFLA-FM, say that typically, it’s members of the middle and upper classes who can afford a symphony concert or ballet performance. If we’re going to spend taxpayer money, he reasons, shouldn’t it be on items that benefit everyone?

“One of the ways they want to fund this is to extend the 1-cent sales tax (for Blueprint 2000),” Scott said. “I have a hard time thinking that in any time in our near future, we’re not going to need that for roads. And to divert that money is not a good idea.”

Bill Law, the president of Tallahassee Community College, who also serves on the board of the Mary Brogan Museum, believes a performing arts center would probably help attract businesses and working professionals to Tallahassee.

Still, he said, “Operating it efficiently is a challenge for life. I certainly want to be supportive. What I want to do, though, is be sure we know how we want to do this. Nobody wants to be embarrassed by a failed operation.”

Law also worries that charitable dollars directed to the performing arts center might harm all the other arts-related institutions in town.

“We don’t have the private-sector support that you see in some places to help offset this,” he said. Regarding the Brogan, which has to raise $1 million to support its operating costs every year, he remarked, “Certainly if all of the charitable contributions would dry up because they went somewhere else, it would be very, very difficult.”


The Public Will Decide

The sales tax that funds Blueprint 2000 was set aside about 15 years ago for capital projects, according to Inzer, the Leon County clerk of court, and has been used almost exclusively for transportation projects.

“The local option sales tax was designated for capital projects,” he said. “This is an appropriate project.”

Proponents say the proposed center would provide educational experiences for schoolchildren.

“Having a performing arts and educational center would be such a wonderful asset to this community and to the surrounding communities as well,” said former Leon County Superintendent of Schools Bill Montford. “It will offer us an opportunity to bring to Tallahassee programs of an educational nature and entertainment from outside our area.”

Paula Smith, a member of the board of directors who has a long history of fundraising for community causes, said having a center could open up opportunities to put on performances for children that would illustrate Florida’s history.

“I love the fact that we can be Florida’s classroom,” she said.

Leon County Commissioner Bryan Desloge praised the group’s willingness to look ahead and plan for the future performing arts needs of the community.

“I applaud them for all the work they’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s visionary, and I’m excited about it.”

Still, he said, it’s important that individuals, and not just the government, contribute to the project.

“We need to see some commitment from the private sector,” he said.

That’s the bottom line that everyone, both those for and against the plan to build a performing arts center, agrees on. Ultimately, the future of the performing arts center rests in the hands of the public.

“This project will only go forward with the support of the citizens,” Smith said. “And all of us will have a vote in that.”

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