Forums collect feedback on performing arts center

by Eric Ginsburg

The Greensboro Performing Arts Center task force held its first of two public forums last week to collect public input and generate a discussion about the proposed downtown performing arts center. Organizers weren’t sure what to expect as they sat waiting in the Regency Room, a grand ballroom on Elm Street, saying there could be anywhere from five to 200 people in attendance.

The turnout landed in the middle, with almost 50 people showing up for the first event, including former Mayor Bill Knight and Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Ed Wolverton. At the parallel event held that night, a smaller crowd of about 35 people discussed aspects of the proposed center in small groups.

“We need to know if Greensboro is ready for this and is poised for it,” Louise Brady, task force co-chair and a stockbroker with Wells Fargo Advisors, said in her opening remarks.

At both events, the room was full of people from the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, the group that convened the task force, and different committee members.

The task force is charged with figuring out how community members feel about the idea, if enough private money can be raised and what the potential impact on downtown might be. While it is possible that hired consultants will come back with a list of negative aspects about the proposal, so far the task force walks the line between gathering information and presenting it, and acting as project cheerleader.

In the limited information already available about the project, nothing is mentioned about any drawbacks to moving forward with the center as suggested, be it the short timeline or the possibility of a tax increase to service bond debt if voters approve the requested $30 million for the project.

Yet the community forums were designed to gather feedback, and while the majority of attendees at both events enthusiastically supported the idea or were on the fence, a handful of people expressed their reservations or opposition to aspects of the project.

It did not appear that anyone at either event felt there should not be a new performing arts center, but some said the timeline was too short, that voters wouldn’t approve the bonds, that the site didn’t need to be downtown or that more people needed to be included in the process.

Sitting at one of the tables, Earle Bower said he was concerned a new facility with public funds would compete with existing venues downtown. At a different table, JP Swisher said it was a daunting task to get voters on board by the time of the proposed November referendum.

Billy Jones, who attended both events and said the performing arts center should be in the neglected northeastern part of the city, was more negative.

“They don’t really want our participation and they’ve done everything they can to stifle it,” he told the people at his table. “They don’t respond to my e-mails. I think we’re going to find very little support for this outside of downtown and northwest Greensboro.”

Many people at both forums said the center needed to be downtown because it was the center of the city and would encourage people to go out for dinner before or a drink after if there were options within walking distance, greatly benefiting the local economy. Downtown developers and business owners are among those who see this as a potential boon, and some of them were in attendance. A developer with experience building performing arts centers was in the crowd too.

Most of those on the fence said they needed more information before they could support the project, particularly around where funding would come from, what specific site it would be on, the economic impact on downtown and other venues and a sense of the type of programming that would be offered.

One person said recent similar development projects, such as the Aquatic Center and the Grasshoppers stadium, have been very successful, suggesting this was a good idea. Another said it should be downtown because that was the heart of the city, not the coliseum or Friendly Shopping Center, adding that it could help keep recent college graduates from moving away.

While some people said parking would be an issue and that a parking deck might need to be part of the equation, one person suggested a downtown trolley to allow people to park further away.

“DPAC [the performing arts center in Durham] draws from Greensboro and east, whereas we could draw from Greensboro and west,” said Margaret Arbuckle with the Guilford Education Alliance, in response to someone at her table who was concerned about competing with DPAC.

A few people suggested the site could have a plaza area for either outdoor performances or to act as a city square. While the common comparison has been made to the center in Durham, people repeatedly said Winston-Salem’s cultural scene puts Greensboro to shame, emphasizing the need for a new center here.

“I think it’s an excellent idea… but it can’t just be for affluent people,” said Nia Wilson, the head of Indigo’s Cultural Art Center in Greensboro who attended both forums. “We need to find a way to make everyone feel comfortable and I don’t think we do a good job of that. It’s the same players. People would have been here had they known.”

Wilson was not alone in her concern that there should be community programming — Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter made a similar comment at her table. One person said partnering with the universities and local artists could improve diversity of programming, while others spoke to the need to keep some prices affordable and to provide more than a space for things like symphonies, operas and ballet.

Other people were concerned that more people weren’t involved in the process and suggested meetings out in communities rather than large ballrooms to discuss the issue. Some of the outreach material for the forums wasn’t printed until two days prior and hadn’t been distributed widely, but Newton said the task force planned to have meetings in each council district and offered to send a speaker to any group that was interested in learning more.

Task force consultant Ross Harris has spoken with seven of the city council members to check in with the project but hasn’t been able to reach Dianne Bellamy-Small or Trudy Wade. The group will begin presenting at city council meetings and including updates in the IFYI packets, and will continue to collect feedback from residents throughout the process, she said.

On May 19, the task force will deliver its preliminary report to council, and the final report a month later.

”We’re pulling people in, and we will push ourselves out,” Harris said, adding that she was pleased with the turnout and diversity of opinions expressed. “We’re approaching this as the community’s theater.”