The Performing-Arts-Center Conundrum


The Performing-Arts-Center ConundrumBy Tabitha Yang

The soaring crescendos and dramatic decrescendos of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto rise and fall in the concert hall. Each note reverberates perfectly in the acoustically flawless venue, leaving the audience spellbound.

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.

Making this fantasy a reality may seem like a great idea, but the flip side of the performing-arts-center coin is the reality of its cost. While more than 600 area residents have given the dream a thumbs-up and made donations to the campaign, others are skeptical. They agree it would be great to have a performing arts center but ask whether it’s worth diverting more than $90 million in tax revenues from needed road and other infrastructure projects to pay for it.

Before the center can 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.

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

The Cost

A consulting group hired to look into building a performing arts center in Tallahassee generated a plan to build a facility that would house a mid-size, multipurpose theater with up to 650 seats and a large concert hall with up to 2,200 seats, plus a number of rehearsal spaces. The price tag? A cool $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. If inflation continues at the rate it has for the past 10 years, it would cost about $152.7 million at that point, according to the 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 budget.

Under the current plan, between $70 million and $90 million of the cost 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 rest of the money would come from 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

The proposed location for the performing arts center is the site of 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.

“It was an incredible 2.65 acres . . . surrounded by 6,200 already-built parking spaces,” she said.

The building was demolished in late fall, and the site now is being reserved for the performing arts center.

Why Do We Need It?

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

They point out that the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center has terrible acoustics, and Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond auditorium is too small and overbooked to accommodate all of 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.

“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,” said Leon County Clerk of Court Bob Inzer, a member of the board of directors. “We’re going to be prepared (to build) when we come out of this.”

The idea for an arts center isn’t new. In 1993, a similar proposal made it to the ballot and failed by about 500 votes. Advocates for the current project are quick to point out that no public awareness campaign was conducted at the time.

Having the arts center in town would 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 . . . extremely important when you look toward our ability to do good economic development,” said City Commissioner Debbie Lightsey.

What Will We Sacrifice?

Opponents of the plan say that while 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 Alan Katz said.

He also pointed out that the economy is hurting and local governments can’t afford to 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 worldwide. The firm generated the $113 million estimate for the performing arts center.

Pace Allen, a local attorney, says he 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.”

The Public Will Decide

Leon County Commissioner Bryan Desloge praised the performing arts group’s willingness to look ahead and plan for the future 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 for and against the plan to build a performing arts center, agrees on.

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