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A center for the arts, but are arts at the center?


Downtown Durham is perpetually on the verge of becoming a thriving cultural and commercial center, and city boosters from all walks of life are working to move downtown development along. But one big development proposal is drawing criticism from artists and residents and confronting the city with a decision about what Durham culture needs to thrive.

On June 7, the Durham City Council will vote on whether to extend consideration of the plan for a 4,000-seat theater adjacent to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the American Tobacco complex renovation. Supporters of the proposed American Center for Performing Arts say the region needs a theater of this size, and that it would serve as a permanent home to the American Dance Festival, which has long outgrown crowded Duke University stages. San Antonio-based Clear Channel Entertainment would manage the theater (it owns, manages or exclusively books more than 100 theaters nationwide, including the Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek ). Planners cite economic projections that show the project would require a $10 million contribution from Duke University, as well as a portion of money from private donors and revenue from a hotel tax, but that it would not cost city taxpayers anything. Furthermore, after Raleigh has snagged so many regional cultural projects (the BTI Center and Exploris, for instance) it's time for the Bull City to get into the game.

But critics of the performing arts center plan point out that the ADF has not committed, that Duke is offering only $1 million, and that there are far more urgent needs for Durham performance spaces. The Carolina Theatre, the Armory and the Durham Arts Council, which house performance spaces that seat 1,000, 500 and 200 respectively, are in serious need of maintenance and repair. Critics are also skeptical about the financial projections for the center and fear the city will end up eating a big loss--Durham doesn't have a great track record when it comes to financial management.

An emerging citizens' group called the Arts & Business Coalition of Downtown, founded by neighborhood residents and business owners (, plans to bring a crowd of people to the June 7 council meeting to oppose the center. Organizers plan to meet at 5:30 p.m. at Blue Coffee Company on Corcoran Street for a pre-meeting acoustic concert by local musicians, then walk to the council meeting at 7 p.m.

"We want to kill the whole Clear Channel thing," says group co-founder Alex Kostelnik, who lives on Parrish Street and works as artistic director of the Scrap Exchange. The proposed events center is only a small part of a development plan connecting the American Tobacco Campus with the core of downtown. Kostelnik says ABCD supports the rest of the plan, which would include residential units and office and commercial space. They also support the idea of a theater, if the need arises, but they don't believe the center is what Durham needs now.

On Tuesday, five ABCD members met with Mayor Bill Bell to discuss their concerns about the plan and let him know their plans for the June 7 meeting. They say they want to keep the tone of discussion civil and mutually respectful. "It's clear to us that ABCD and the mayor both share the same vision for downtown," says architect Scott Harmon, "and for the unique potential that downtown Durham has to outshine the rest of the Triangle.

"We're on the same team," Kostelnik agrees.

Caleb Southern, also a member of ABCD, says that if city officials had taken the pulse of the local arts community regarding Clear Channel, they would have realized early on that there would be opposition. Clear Channel owns 1,182 radio stations, including five in the Triangle, and has been the subject of heated criticism over alleged anti-competitive practices.

Another city booster, Reyn Bowman of the Durham Convention & Visitors' Bureau has some serious concerns about the proposed theater and agrees that fixing the other venues is urgent. "We've been pretty good at building things," Bowman says, "but we have not been good at sustaining them and giving them the tools they need to succeed. We should back up and study first what's needed to sustain the cultural landscape in general, and then what pieces are missing." Plans for a theater didn't come from the performing arts community, he says, but from a small group of influential people "mostly as an amenity to develop eight acres of land."

Philip Szostak is the architect designing the center and surrounding development. He says he's been working on it for about four years, and that Clear Channel has been a partner since the beginning. "I've always found them to be very fair to deal with and was kind of shocked to hear the arts groups' concerns being expressed so publicly so late in the game." The details of the proposal were first announced last summer, he says, yet vocal opposition only began in the past few weeks.

What if Clear Channel were out of the picture? "We're designing a project that is feasible with and without Clear Channel's involvement. They're really just a manager. They're not an owner. They will not control how things are done here." Szostak says Clear Channel programmers will report to a board of directors and to the city. "The theater is really more about Durham's culture than Clear Channel culture."

Bowman says Clear Channel's involvement is what started the ball rolling years ago. Despite the involvement of local arts groups, "the whole thing is dependent on [Clear Channel's] success the way it's structured. It is concerning that we would make anything so dependent on one company."

The other powerful force behind the project is Capitol Broadcasting, which owns the American Tobacco complex and the Durham Bulls, and whose investments would be enhanced by construction of the theater.

ABCD members say the plans for a theater are less important than fixing the existing venues. They are also skeptical that the current plan incorporates the needs of the city's many small performance groups. Better, they say, to wait for the American Tobacco Project to open and then gauge the sort of venue that would fit downtown.

That, in so many words, is also what was recommended in the Durham Cultural Master Plan commissioned by the Durham Arts Council and released this February. Consultants interviewed more than 250 people about the needs of the Durham arts community, and concluded that maintenance of existing spaces is crucial. The consultants also noted that Durham has a much higher proportion of small-scale arts groups than other cities they've assessed--nearly half of the groups they surveyed had budgets under $100,000.

"The ADF isn't the only cultural group in trouble," Bowman says. "We are fortunate in Durham to have nationally acclaimed indigenous art forms and they are all very, very fragile right now because of the competition for private funding and the competition for audience and sponsorship."

Do those small, roving performance groups support the proposed event space? "It doesn't excite me," says Anna Ludwig Wilson, founder and artistic director of Mallarme Chamber Players, which usually performs in venues that seat 600 or fewer people. "In the planning meetings there was some discussion of having [the center] include smaller theaters, but the actual plan did not sound like it would be optimal for acoustic groups," she says. "The other thing that concerns me is the additional city money that would go into building it and providing upkeep when the performing arts spaces that we have, several of them are in dire need of upkeep. I also am concerned about how a 4,000 seat theater would support North Carolina artists, or if it would really support bringing in out-of-state artists for the most part."

Jay O'Berski of Shakespeare & Originals theater company echoes those concerns. "My feeling is that small groups like mine will gain nothing" from the proposed performance center.

Szostak says the project's planners have been talking for six months to many of the same groups that were involved in the master plan. In order to allay fears that the center would compete with the Carolina Theatre and other venues, the proposal includes an initiative called Durham Live that would promote live theater events at other venues, including St. Joseph's Historic Foundation, the Carolina and the Durham Arts Council. "It's helping these small nonprofits that don't have sales staff to be able to raise more money and become more viable because of that." Two percent of the gross revenue of the event center would be used to implement recommendations from the Durham Cultural Master Plan. "We're taking care of everything from emerging artist to existing theaters," Szostak says.

He says the project's financial plan originally included money for upkeep on the Carolina and other existing spaces, but that he was told by city officials that they would float a bond item instead.

Kostelnik says the city's plan to use bond money to pay for maintenance it should have done all along is bad financial management. "That's like using a credit card to buy groceries," he said. "It's backwards."

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