Greensboro performing arts center marches forward

by Eric Ginsburg Follow me on Twitter @Eric_Ginsburg

There may have been an abundance of questions about how it would unfold, but even opponents of the downtown Greensboro performing arts center seemed to know that the project was a done deal before council voted in favor of the center last week.

Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, one of the three on council to vote against $7.6 million to buy land as part of a $60 million overall performing arts center, even cited it when explaining her opposition to the project.

“I’ve sat quiet because it’s obvious what folks are going to do,” she said before the vote, adding that council members “pushed and rammed and pushed” the center forward.

Council members Marikay Abuzuaiter and Tony Wilkins joined Bellamy-Small as the dissenting votes as council moved ahead with the performing arts center, approving five agenda items. Along with several speakers, some of them city council candidates, the trio raised questions about the finances, location and viability of the center.

A lot has changed since council began discussing the issue in early 2012 and established a task force to gather input and explore funding and site options, including an announcement just before council’s Aug. 20 vote that private fundraising efforts had exceeded the $20 million goal.

Community Foundation President Walker Sanders said project leaders are confident private donations will reach $30 million to cover half of the center’s costs. Sanders said the private fundraising team is already in talks with large donors and hinted at a major funding announcement in September.

Supporters on council and several task force subcommittee members said the private donations signified strong community support that amounts to a “mandate” and is “unheard of,” saying the center is a “game changer” and will create development “momentum” downtown. The terms were repeated numerous times throughout council’s discussion.

“This is a tremendous game-changer for our community,” Councilman Zack Matheny said.

Matheny and Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan both said they were skeptical of the project at first but worked hard to find a way to make the plan financially viable. Vaughan, who is running for mayor, said she was “extremely skeptical” nine months ago but articulated why she stands behind the current plan.

The city originally thought it would need to pony up $40 million in public funds alongside $20 million in private contributions, she said, which evolved into a plan to pay for the center with $20 million in user fees and $20 million in bonds. Council scrapped plans for a voter referendum and bonds when it realized it could generate $30 million in user fees, Vaughan said, and with an assurance from the Community Foundation that private donations will hit $30 million.

Mentioning plans for an adjacent $10 million LeBauer public park, Vaughan said the performing arts center would really be leveraging $40 million in private money. Matheny added that recent announcements about plans for two hotels that referenced the center indicate the kind of economic impact the center will have on downtown Greensboro.

Completion of the performing arts center, which will replace the crumbling War Memorial Auditorium at the coliseum complex, is still far away. The city anticipates the design will take up to a year to complete followed by two years of construction, though it hasn’t set a projected completion date yet.

There are several other steps council needs to take before the project is fully underway too, such as approving construction contracts, holding public hearings about the location and actually purchasing the land.

The city plans to build the performing arts center on the block between Elm, Bellemeade and Lindsay streets and Summit Avenue, demolishing current structures that include Boston’s House of Jazz, Burton’s Pharmacy and the former site of the Greensboro Inn. Up until recently, plans called for the center to go across the street on the old YWCA site next to Festival Park and the Greensboro Historical Museum, but that location is now the planned destination of the LeBauer Park.

One of the leases extends to 2016 and could be a stumbling block, but Sanders said project leaders are focused on resolving the issue.

Mike Boston, the owner of Boston’s House of Jazz, spoke at the council meeting saying he was unsure whether he was for or against the project because it’s a “great idea” but he would be pushed out. The strong encouragement to leave the building he leases on Summit Avenue has been “degrading,” he said.

This is a tremendous game-changer for our community.’

Councilman Zack Matheny

“[It’s] almost embarrassing that people would think my business is worth so little,” Boston said, adding that he attracts up to 3,000 people each week. “I just don’t feel like I should be pushed out in the name of progress.”

Boston said when the city wanted development downtown he brought it five years ago. The venue was located on the northwest corner of downtown near the Grasshoppers’ stadium but recently moved to the more central location.

Several council members were troubled that a live music venue would be forced out by the performing arts center, especially in the context of related concerns about a potential lack of minority-owned businesses being hired for center construction contracts.

Council unanimously passed a motion by District 2 Councilman Jim Kee to “maximize minority participation” for performing arts center construction contracts, with Bellamy-Small’s abstention counting as an affirmative vote because she wasn’t formally recused.

A motion by Wilkins, who represents District 5, to ensure no future taxpayer money is used to cover any performing arts center budget deficits failed when nobody would second it. In a presentation to council at the beginning of the discussion, City Manager Denise Turner Roth said the center is projected to operate at a deficit of up to $388,000 in part because of a desire for community programming that would make the center more widely accessible. The city expects the multi-use facility to be programmed for 220 days a year, particularly with rehearsals, Broadway performances, concerts and comedy events and the symphony.

The city will obtain a bank loan to purchase the property for the center. A $2 ticket fee at the center, $3 parking fee and a $15 premium parking option at the old War Memorial site is projected to bring in $20 million of the public funding, Vaughan and other proponents prefer because people who use the center will pay for it and not the general public.

The remaining $10 million of public funding will come from city and county hotel/motel taxes. The county approved the expenditure earlier this month. The city and county will each implement a 3 percent hotel/motel tax, effectively adding a 6 percent tax within city limits.

Roth said it will be 15 years or more before the city is able to pursue another major capital project through the hotel/motel tax account. It will take 27 years for the city to pay off the debt on the center, with the total amount hitting $51 million, according to Roth. If the fees and charges don’t create enough revenue, Roth said, the amounts could be adjusted in the future.

Opponents raised a number of concerns about the finances, with former mayor and District 4 candidate Bill Knight saying he supported the center if it can be fully funded through private contributions.

At-large Councilwoman Abuzuaiter agreed, saying she couldn’t understand why the private commitment of $30 million couldn’t double. Abuzuaiter and Knight also questioned whether the center will be as successful as the model Durham Performing Arts Center, which is more easily accessible by highway. Supporters pointed out that Durham’s center raised a fraction of the private funds committed in Greensboro.

Other opponents have said the center shouldn’t be a priority during an economic downturn or when there are so many other important projects to fund or needy residents to serve, referencing other performing arts and cultural spaces, the county’s closure of Healthserve community clinic and the unemployment rate.

Mayor Robbie Perkins, who has been a strong advocate for the center since Day 1, said this is why he serves on council. Saying that he gets dinged a lot as the mayor and that some is deserved and some isn’t, being able to bring change towards a “bright, more profitable, more optimistic future” is reason enough to endure.

“This city is changed tonight,” he said.