Performing arts center task force deals with transparency, short timeline

by Eric Ginsburg

The clock is ticking on a proposal fora new downtown Greensboro performingarts center, which many citycouncil members and other advocatessay needs to be approved in mid-June soit can appear on the ballot as a bond referendumvote in the fall. With a short turn-around schedule,a newly created task force — meeting forthe first time on Thursday — has a lot to tackle.

Two similar bond referendums failed inrecent years, in part because people didn’tunderstand what they were being asked to voteon, said Community Foundation presidentWalker Sanders.

“I think those efforts failed because Greensboroas a community doesn’t like things beingslammed down their throat,” he said. “We havea performing arts center right now and it’s aliability to this community. It’s the pits. Something’sgot to be done for this city to competewith a performing arts facility.”

Community participation in the process willprevent residents from rejecting the project,especially at the polls, he said.

At the request of interim City Manager DeniseTurner Roth, the Community Foundationbegan creating a task force with three committees,a subcommittee and an advisory board.Downtown Greensboro Inc., the United ArtsCouncil, city council and other stakeholderssubmitted names of people who should be onthe task force, Sanders said. Out of 80 to 100people who were invited to participate, about55 responded by the deadline three days lateron Feb. 6.

Some residents have raised questions aboutthe timing of the project, arguing four monthsisn’t enough time for an economic impactreport or genuine community process, and sayfunding a project of this magnitude duringtough economic times is a bad move, especiallyif a bond referendum passed that would likelynecessitate raising taxes.

Residents have also said they feel the outcomeof the task force, which aims to “createan open, candid and constructive dialoguearound the needs of a performing arts center,” isa foregone conclusion because of who is leadingthe process.

The Community Foundation, which supportscreating a new performing arts center,hired Mayor Robbie Perkins’ former campaignmanager and marketing and advertising veteranRoss Harris to manage the task force. Harrissaid she knew when she took the positionthe question about a conflict of interest wouldarise. Perkins has expressed his strong supportfor a performing arts center, particularly onebuilt downtown and managed by GreensboroColiseum Director Matt Brown.

“I’ve been around this community for a longtime and I think I’ve proven myself to be objective,”Harris said. “I can assure you in no waywill these results will be biased based on myrelationships with Robbie. It’s an open processand we aren’t going into it with any preconceivednotions, and that’s really the truth.”

Sanders said there aren’t foregone conclusionsin the process; otherwise they wouldn’t becreating the task force in the first place. He saidthe foundation picked Harris because of herdecades of experience and because she knowseveryone in the community.

“The fact that she managed Robbie’s campaignis kind of icing on the cake,” Sanderssaid, adding that city council’s leadership iswhy the issue is even on the table. “There isno way you could do this process if you don’tengage people that are already a part of this.Transparency is the solution to conflicts ofinterest. Everyone knows where people stand.”

Sanders said the task force members werenot unbiased, but that they didn’t have a uniformopinion and that the goal was to involveas many people as possible in the process,regardless of their views on the issue.

“We will measure success if people canat least say it was an objective and openprocess… and allow everyone to make aninformed decision,” Sanders said.

The task force will hold three public hearingsover the next several months as an opportunityto report its findings about similarprojects, the impact on downtown, the abilityto raise about $10 million in private fundingand how it will relate to the rest of thecultural community.

The hearings will also be an opportunityfor residents to provide feedback and raisequestions or concerns. The task force is notconducting a comparative study betweendowntown locations and the originally proposedcoliseum site, but is only focused ondowntown options.

Part of the reason a new performing artscenter came up and that the process has a shorttimeline is due to increased funding of $11million through the hotel/motel tax becomingavailable for cultural investment, Sanderssaid. In December, Coliseum Director MattBrown proposed plans to build a $36 millionperforming arts center on the coliseum sitefunded in part by the hotel/motel tax funds,though the money could be spent to enrichother cultural projects or ventures.

Brown and others, like Sanders, have saidGreensboro needs a state-of-the-art center tocompete with complexes like the DurhamPerforming Arts Center, or DPAC, and withthe bond debt paid off to the crumbling WarMemorial Auditorium, they say now is the timefor a new facility.

DJ Hardy, a former accountant who has runfor city council in the last two elections and ison the civic engagement committee of the taskforce, said he is very supportive of the ideabut most opponents he’s talked to address thecost. While Hardy said it’s hard to quantify aquality-of-life improvement like a new center,he said the timeline seemed short.

“There’s really a challenge to convincepeople that this is something that demands sucha short timeline to turn around and demandssuch an allotment of bond funds,” Hardy said.“Four months for anything involving action bythe city generally seems like an impossibility,frankly, but this is something that should havebroad community support.”

While many residents would welcome anew performing arts center, many peoplemay not see it as an imperative project, hesaid.

Harris said she did not think they wererushing the process, but that is was necessaryto move quickly because even the currentschedule wouldn’t allow a performing arts centerto be opened until late 2015 or early 2016.

Former mayor and Carolina Theatre presidentKeith Holliday, who is on the task force’seconomic impact/feasibility subcommitteefor the arts and culture, said there are manymoving pieces to the equation but that a newcenter is needed downtown and should beconnected to other cultural institutions likethe Carolina Theatre.

Holliday said within the first two yearsof operation, DPAC nearly put the CarolinaTheatre in Durham, which is not affiliatedwith the one in Greensboro but is run by thecity, out of business. After an infusion offunds and some collaboration, both culturalcenters are thriving just blocks from eachother, which is what Holliday would like tosee happen in Greensboro.

Other factors that need to be consideredinclude the type of events a center wouldhost and how many seats it would include,Holliday said.

“I want to be joined at the hip with thisbuilding,” Holliday said, gesturing to locationsnear the Carolina Theatre where a centercould be located. “Bigger is not always better. Idon’t want it to hurt us.”

Higher seating capacity, like Brown’sproposal for a 3,600-seat venue, carries a largerprice tag, but Holliday said a bigger size canalso mean a lower quality sound and culturalexperience for fans who, for example, want tosee actor’s facial expressions.

The task force plans to hold three publichearings on the proposed performing arts centerin April and May.