Greensboro performing arts center taking shape

by Eric Ginsburg

It`s been more than a decade since a commissioned study recommended a performing arts center in the northern part of downtown Greensboro, but a design for the proposed development was first unveiled last week.

Coliseum Director Matt Brown outlined a location and concept for the center at a hastily called public meeting on June 5 before presenting the design to city council that evening.

“I can’t tell you how excited we are about where we are in the process,” Community Foundation President Walker Sanders said as he opened the afternoon meeting.

Council voted 6-3 to lower the proposed bond from $30 million to $20 million and move forward with the project, with District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade, District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small and at-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter voting against it. Council has to take a final vote in order to put a bond on the ballot for citizens in November and will hold a public hearing June 26 after the performing arts center task force makes its final presentation.

Consultant Ross Harris, who is helping to oversee the task force, said the total cost for the project would likely amount to something in the neighborhood of $55 million or $60 million, including a $20 million bond, $20 million in private funds and $7 million from a hotel/motel tax. “While we don’t have checks in the bank, we believe we have individuals interested in investing a little over $13 million in this project, and they hadn’t even seen a picture yet,” Ross said. “A $30 million bond is too much and not fair to the citizens who are property owners. We need to spread the responsibility out of funding this.”

The initial private fundraising goal of $10 million has been raised to $20 million, which Ross thinks is feasible now that people can get a better sense of what it could look like.

The city hoped to impose a small ticket tax for the center to help cover costs but wasn’t able to secure the votes from the Guilford County legislative delegation in time for it to be voted on in the NC General Assembly’s next session. Harris said it is still a possibility in the future and that the city is still looking into other funding options.

Brown estimated the cost of the facility at $43 million, give or take $7 million, adding he believed the cost could be reduced to $41 million. His estimate does not include the price of acquiring land, and while some potential sites are already city property, his design placed the performing arts center along North Elm Street and south of East Lindsay Street and the Wrangler Building.

The footprint includes 290 parking spaces on the site of the recently closed Greensboro Inn, the Summit Station Eatery, an office building, parking lots, Burton’s Pharmacy and the Chamber of Commerce.

Summit Station Eatery co-owner Lisa Estes said her staff had not heard anything about the center from the property owner.

“We were shocked,” Estes said. We want to stay where we are. To have to relocate would probably put us out of business.”

It is unclear how much the property would cost or what the economic impact of business relocations or closures would entail, but Harris said the benefit of the center outweighs the estimated price tag.

“This could be a huge game changer for Greensboro,” she said. “It’s a huge economic driver. It’s shortsighted to get caught up on cost.”

Carolina Theatre CEO Keith Holliday previously stated the importance of locating the center near the other theaters.

After attending Brown’s presentation, Holliday was disappointed the proposed site was so far north.

“I was hoping that a potential site could be near the Carolina Theatre in order to leverage it as a second venue,” Holliday said.

Holliday, the former mayor, envisions a theater district, expanding on the proximity of the Triad Stage, Broach Theatre and Carolina Theatre. He favors the cityowned potential site immediately to his west, which is currently a parking lot.

Nothing is finalized yet, including the proposed location, Sanders emphasized.

“This is by no means meant to be the final version,” he said. “Sometimes it’s messy when you see the sausage being made.”

The location could be changed, but Harris said the task force was moving forward with the proposed location for now. If the design of the center was narrowed, she said, it could fit more easily onto other spots.

Numerous changes have already been made in the rapid planning process, including cutting the total number of seats from Brown’s desired 3,600 to 3,200 — still far above the Durham Performing Arts Center’s 2,741 or the coliseum complex’s current but outdated capacity of 2,400 at War Memorial Auditorium.

Brown said that design plans were repeatedly modified to save costs by lowering the roof and shell and to improve the facility overall. Two rows were added to the balcony in order to shave seats from the sides and improve sight lines, and Brown reduced concessions space to allow for more restrooms.

Abuzuaiter and Holliday questioned the wisdom of incorporating so many parking spaces, saying people should be encouraged to walk. Abuzuaiter said the task force has done a wonderful job and that she is impressed with how much money it has potentially raised, but questioned whether additional private money could be raised if the process were slowed down.

While she would like to see a performing arts center built eventually, Abuzuaiter said it is not the time to ask taxpayers to approve a $20 million bond. While the project could be an economic driver, she said it was unclear how many jobs would be created and for whom. She also argued that high ticket prices mean the facility would not be accessible to many residents.

“This is a luxury,” Abuzuaiter said.

“We have too many other issues. We are already doing the greenway. We have too many people who are living paycheck to paycheck. What is wrong with us stepping back and taking a breather [to get] more input?” An economic impact study commissioned by the task force estimated a performing arts center would put $7 million into the downtown economy, but didn’t offer specific answers to some of Abuzuaiter’s questions.

The project is most often compared to the Durham Performing Arts Center, though Sanders said the task force isn’t trying to build the same venue. Brown repeatedly drew comparisons, pointing out ways a Greensboro center would cost less including a possible construction atrisk agreement like the new county jail.

Abuzuaiter also referenced Durham’s facility, saying it took four years of planning to create. While she was on a task force that discussed a performing arts center four years ago, she said the fundraising and other work wasn’t continuous and would require more time.