Theater locale change sought in Durham

Backers propose site inside loop

Staff WriterFebruary 1, 2005 

Members of the local arts community are now asking the city to scrap six years of design work to build a performing arts center near the American Tobacco redevelopment project and look at locating the theater in the heart of downtown.

The request came as a surprise to temple-rubbing project managers at a meeting attended by about 25 people Monday. Chapel Hill architect Phil Szostak said it was the first time in his 20 years of working on public projects that community members had questioned the location of a project.

"That's generally the given," he said.

But one-time county commissioner candidate Josh Parker, joined by a handful of residents, argued that building the $35 million theater on a city-owned parking lot at Morgan and Rigsbee streets would help build momentum inside the Downtown Loop and dovetails with the county's cultural master plan to create a vibrant center city arts district along with the Carolina Theatre and Durham Arts Council. American Tobacco already serves as the catalyst south of the train tracks, Parker said.

"We've got to question our commitment to redeveloping downtown if we're going to focus all of our efforts in [the American Tobacco] area," he said.

The city's economic development director, Alan DeLisle, pledged to look at the alternative, but he raised serious concerns about its viability. Among them: Whether the city could cram a 2,800-seat theater onto the property and still have room for parking and rehearsal and office space for the American Dance Festival. The city's proposal calls for the city to own the theater and for Professional Facilities Management and Nederlander Productions to manage operations and book talent, making room for the six-week dance festival.

The firms would assume all potential operating losses, and the city would receive 40 percent of earnings above operating expenses and management fees estimated at $125,000 a year over a 10-year term. In turn, the firms would pay the city $250,000, at least some of which would go toward construction expenses. A portion of ticket revenues would be funneled into a reserve fund for building maintenance.

DeLisle said that preliminary arrangement could be compromised by introducing another location that is not as readily accessible and visible from the Durham Freeway as the Blackwell Street site.

The theater would host at least 122 performances a year, including Broadway showstoppers, rock concerts, and family and holiday programming, with average ticket prices ranging from $6 to $60.

Szostak has explored reorienting the theater on the Blackwell site so the lobby would face the central business district. A park plaza is planned as a link between the theater and the American Tobacco redevelopment project.

The plot of the theater has gone through more twists and turns than a Broadway farce, and the city is running out of time. Later this month, the council is scheduled to vote on paying for more design work at the Blackwell site.

The city initially proposed a 4,000-seat theater, but the city couldn't raise enough money in private donations, and Clear Channel Entertainment backed out in August, after elected officials insisted that the theater operator bear all the operating risk.

Duke University officials said Monday that the possibility of locating the theater closer to campus would not affect the university's $3 million donation. The city needs to raise $7 million more in naming rights and private contributions to make the project work, Szostak said.

The bulk of the construction cost would be funded through the county's hotel tax, increased by the General Assembly for that purpose. City officials expect legislators to approve a one-year extension to use the tax, meaning construction would have to begin by September 2006. The theater is scheduled to open in the fall of 2007.

The city's development agreement for American Tobacco spells out locating the theater along Blackwell Street. Peter Anlyan, general manager for the American Tobacco project, said moving the theater would not compromise the company's ability to develop the rest of the site, including office and retail uses. If the city does not move forward, Capitol Broadcasting Co. can exercise its option to buy the entire property.

Staff writer Margie Fishman can be reached at 956-2405 or mfishman@newsobserver.com.

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