The clock is ticking on a proposal for a new downtown Greensboro performing arts center, which many city council members and other advocates say needs to be approved in mid-June so it can appear on the ballot as a bond referendum vote in the fall. With a short turn-around schedule, a newly created task force — meeting for the first time on Thursday — has a lot to tackle.
Two similar bond referendums failed in recent years, in part because people didn’t understand what they were being asked to vote on, said Community Foundation president Walker Sanders.
“I think those efforts failed because Greensboro
as a community doesn’t like things being
slammed down their throat,” he said. “We have
a performing arts center right now and it’s a
liability to this community. It’s the pits. Something’s
got to be done for this city to compete
with a performing arts facility.”
Community participation in the process will
prevent residents from rejecting the project,
especially at the polls, he said.
At the request of interim City Manager Denise Turner Roth, the Community Foundation began creating a task force with three committees, a subcommittee and an advisory board. Downtown Greensboro Inc., the United Arts Council, city council and other stakeholders submitted names of people who should be on the task force, Sanders said. Out of 80 to 100 people who were invited to participate, about 55 responded by the deadline three days later on Feb. 6.
Some residents have raised questions about
the timing of the project, arguing four months
isn’t enough time for an economic impact
report or genuine community process, and say
funding a project of this magnitude during
tough economic times is a bad move, especially
if a bond referendum passed that would likely
necessitate raising taxes.
Residents have also said they feel the outcome
of the task force, which aims to “create
an open, candid and constructive dialogue
around the needs of a performing arts center,” is
a foregone conclusion because of who is leading
The Community Foundation, which supports creating a new performing arts center, hired Mayor Robbie Perkins’ former campaign manager and marketing and advertising veteran Ross Harris to manage the task force. Harris said she knew when she took the position the question about a conflict of interest would arise. Perkins has expressed his strong support for a performing arts center, particularly one built downtown and managed by Greensboro Coliseum Director Matt Brown.
“I’ve been around this community for a long
time and I think I’ve proven myself to be objective,”
Harris said. “I can assure you in no way
will these results will be biased based on my
relationships with Robbie. It’s an open process
and we aren’t going into it with any preconceived
notions, and that’s really the truth.”
Sanders said there aren’t foregone conclusions
in the process; otherwise they wouldn’t be
creating the task force in the first place. He said
the foundation picked Harris because of her
decades of experience and because she knows
everyone in the community.
“The fact that she managed Robbie’s campaign is kind of icing on the cake,” Sanders said, adding that city council’s leadership is why the issue is even on the table. “There is no way you could do this process if you don’t engage people that are already a part of this. Transparency is the solution to conflicts of interest. Everyone knows where people stand.”
Sanders said the task force members were
not unbiased, but that they didn’t have a uniform
opinion and that the goal was to involve
as many people as possible in the process,
regardless of their views on the issue.
“We will measure success if people can at least say it was an objective and open process… and allow everyone to make an informed decision,” Sanders said.
The task force will hold three public hearings
over the next several months as an opportunity
to report its findings about similar
projects, the impact on downtown, the ability
to raise about $10 million in private funding
and how it will relate to the rest of the
The hearings will also be an opportunity
for residents to provide feedback and raise
questions or concerns. The task force is not
conducting a comparative study between
downtown locations and the originally proposed
coliseum site, but is only focused on
Part of the reason a new performing arts center came up and that the process has a short timeline is due to increased funding of $11 million through the hotel/motel tax becoming available for cultural investment, Sanders said. In December, Coliseum Director Matt Brown proposed plans to build a $36 million performing arts center on the coliseum site funded in part by the hotel/motel tax funds, though the money could be spent to enrich other cultural projects or ventures.
Brown and others, like Sanders, have said
Greensboro needs a state-of-the-art center to
compete with complexes like the Durham
Performing Arts Center, or DPAC, and with
the bond debt paid off to the crumbling War
Memorial Auditorium, they say now is the time
for a new facility.
DJ Hardy, a former accountant who has run
for city council in the last two elections and is
on the civic engagement committee of the task
force, said he is very supportive of the idea
but most opponents he’s talked to address the
cost. While Hardy said it’s hard to quantify a
quality-of-life improvement like a new center,
he said the timeline seemed short.
“There’s really a challenge to convince people that this is something that demands such a short timeline to turn around and demands such an allotment of bond funds,” Hardy said. “Four months for anything involving action by the city generally seems like an impossibility, frankly, but this is something that should have broad community support.”
While many residents would welcome a
new performing arts center, many people
may not see it as an imperative project, he
Harris said she did not think they were
rushing the process, but that is was necessary
to move quickly because even the current
schedule wouldn’t allow a performing arts center
to be opened until late 2015 or early 2016.
Former mayor and Carolina Theatre president
Keith Holliday, who is on the task force’s
economic impact/feasibility subcommittee
for the arts and culture, said there are many
moving pieces to the equation but that a new
center is needed downtown and should be
connected to other cultural institutions like
the Carolina Theatre.
Holliday said within the first two years
of operation, DPAC nearly put the Carolina
Theatre in Durham, which is not affiliated
with the one in Greensboro but is run by the
city, out of business. After an infusion of
funds and some collaboration, both cultural
centers are thriving just blocks from each
other, which is what Holliday would like to
see happen in Greensboro.
Other factors that need to be considered include the type of events a center would host and how many seats it would include, Holliday said.
“I want to be joined at the hip with this building,” Holliday said, gesturing to locations near the Carolina Theatre where a center could be located. “Bigger is not always better. I don’t want it to hurt us.”
Higher seating capacity, like Brown’s
proposal for a 3,600-seat venue, carries a larger
price tag, but Holliday said a bigger size can
also mean a lower quality sound and cultural
experience for fans who, for example, want to
see actor’s facial expressions.
The task force plans to hold three public hearings on the proposed performing arts center in April and May.