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Size isn't everything

Durham puts smaller theater center stage



There are many ways in which Houston is different from Durham. It has nearly two million people compared to Durham's nearly 200,000. It has ballet, opera and resident theater companies that make up a thriving downtown theater district. Houston has made a commitment to its arts and music scenes that Durham has yet to fully consider. Josh Parker saw something else on his trip to Houston that demonstrates the differences between the cities. The medians were well manicured, the light rail cars and buses were clean, and when he walked into public buildings, he saw people cleaning, scrubbing and painting. "There was a good feeling," he says, "and it just looked like they had pride in what they had." He thought of the deferred maintenance of the Carolina Theatre and other buildings throughout Durham. He wondered to himself, "Why don't we have the leadership to take care of what we've got?"

Parker, a member of the Arts & Business Coalition of Downtown and a recent candidate for Durham county commissioner, was allowed to travel to Houston to take part in tours and meetings that Durham city officials had with Clear Channel Entertainment. He paid his own way and set up his own meetings with regional theater companies, the University of Houston theater department and with executives at Clear Channel, the media conglomerate favored as the operator of the proposed events center.

He says he had a good time walking around downtown, talking with people at bars and restaurants, everyone he could. He, along with Durham Mayor Bill Bell, outgoing City Manager Marcia Conner, city council member John Best, Jr. and Alan DeLisle, the city's director of economic development, saw a John Fogerty concert in Houston's Verizon Wireless Theater. "It's all concrete," Parker says, describing the 2,900-seat venue they came to visit. "It's all painted black. It's very simple and stark." The concert was sold out. "It was a really good time," he says. "It was a really nice venue for that, for a rock concert. But I can't imagine seeing theater there."

City officials came back from Houston excited. Last Tuesday at a public meeting at the Hayti Heritage Center, they unveiled a revised plan for a 2,800-seat events center with an adjacent black box space. They hope the smaller version and its smaller cost (roughly $30 million) will gain more support among critics of the older, more expensive 4,000-seat theater plan, which was projected to cost $42 million. The city would not have to raise additional funds for its revised plan--all $30 million would come from the hotel-motel tax already being collected.

Acknowledging that the Verizon theater is a bit too stark to be a suitable home for the American Dance Festival, architect Phil Szostak says he is also looking to a more upscale venue of the same size: the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati, a $60 million venue for performing arts groups, such as the opera and symphony. Szostak says that building's high-end acoustics, polished wood finishes and velvet seats are too expensive for Durham, but that he'd like to use elements from both examples.

"We have shown this plan to ADF," Szostak said Tuesday. "They seemed very happy with the new design." No representative from ADF was present at the meeting. DeLisle emphasized that the revised plan comes from being "better informed" after listening to public input.

Parker, however, says the plan for a two-in-one venue is still "second-rate," an impression that the trip to Houston only confirmed. "I kept asking people, can you marry the two venues? Can you make a first-class concert venue and a first-class theater venue be the same thing? A few people said it could happen, but you'd be compromising the quality of both." Parker believes the city is rushing things, and doing them backwards. Officials decided to build a theater, he says, then tried to figure out what it could be used for. "We're trying to be all things to all people and they're compromising quality just to say they built something."

Conversations with Bob Klaus, who runs the Alltel Pavilion in Raleigh, and Larry Weathers, general manager of the Verizon Theater in Houston, convinced Parker that the entertainment giant is not driving the rush to build a venue in Durham. "Clear Channel has never proposed a theater size or pushed anything." They were open about the limitations of their Houston venue, he says. "I'd get a clear answer from them and then one of the city officials would try to spin it."

The new plan did get a warmer response from citizens who attended the meeting last Tuesday, many of whom are downtown residents who've criticized the events center proposal. "I'd like to say thank you for reworking the design," said Kate Dobbs Ariail, president of Liberty Arts Inc. "This is looking more like a theater in my opinion."

But she too had many concerns about the quality of the space, as did others attending the meeting: Will the acoustics be good enough for dance ensembles that incorporate live music? Is this a theater ADF could tolerate, or one that would lure national touring dance, opera and symphony acts to Durham? And will the black box space be attractive to local performers, or simply an afterthought?

Questions about design elements get at the heart of the bigger question: Is this the theater Durham needs?

"We've never asked those questions," Parker says. "Is this the right thing to do with the money, is this the right place, is this the right time?" Durham's Cultural Master Plan is just being implemented, but the theater's planners are treating it as a separate concern, he says. "They're not looking at all the pieces that are all part of the same puzzle. We're acting as if this is a panacea, and if we build something it will be great."

Despite all of his objections, Parker seems resigned. "I'm very confident that they're going to build this theater," he says. He hopes the city will negotiate a deal with the operator, likely Clear Channel, that will insulate taxpayers from risk and costs of long-term maintenance. And he hopes future plans for public projects will be undertaken in a completely different way.

We should take a lesson from Houston, he says. "It's very clear that Houston really got it right. They came in, they made a really serious commitment to their downtown and to the arts. They had this conversation that we're having now about how to meet the needs of artists."

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