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The jury's still out on the location of the new Sanford Performing Arts Institute.

CULTUREWhat's going on with the proposed Sanford Performing Arts Institute, the theater complex being planned to serve the Triangle and the state? Will it be built? If so, where? There are some clear answers to these questions. Unfortunately, they differ, depending on who's doing the answering.

The PAI is the brainchild of some imaginative people. It was adopted by Terry Sanford in the year before his death and subsequently taken to raise by a steering committee headed by Tom Drew, president of Phoenix Communications, the Durham lobbying and PR firm. The PAI was envisioned as a home for the American Dance Festival and for a repertory theater founded by actor Tony Randall. It was also intended to be a site for instruction, a venue for many different kinds of performance and a pride-generating piece of architecture. Figures like $200 million were bandied about freely, but no one would speak precisely about how such an institute could benefit or harm existing local performers.

We haven't heard much about the project since February, when Drew and some of his architectural and theater consultants held an information meeting, ostensibly to solicit ideas from that same local performance community. At that time, they presented initial drawings and plans for a Cesar Pelli-designed mega-building to be placed on Blue Ridge Road, adjacent to the N.C. Museum of Art, where the old Polk Youth Center now stands forlorn. The PAI folks didn't have the land on Blue Ridge Road yet, said Drew in February, but they were working on it. It was an interesting statement (no matter how one felt about that location for the Institute), because this was the same land that the museum had been waiting lo these many years to receive in order to complete its campus. It had long been promised to the museum, but an act of the state legislature was necessary to transfer it, and as sometimes happens with things political, the transfer was dragged out. Finally, this summer the bill was passed and the land transferred to the Department of Cultural Resources "for the use of the Art Museum."

Does this mean that the PAI will go on the museum's new land--or not? Here is where people start giving very different answers.

On July 22, the Herald-Sun quoted State Sen. Wib Gulley (D-Durham) as saying, "There's a clear, explicit understanding. ... [The land] is not to be parceled, leased or subleased for any other purpose. The performing arts center is not going there."

In a more recent interview, Gulley explained that there was "an informal understanding between the folks that head up the museum and some of the legislative leaders." Gulley believes that Lawrence Wheeler, director of the museum, "understood that a significant group of leaders was interested in the land going to the museum, but not anything else going on there."

That sounds pretty definite, but Tom Drew, the PAI steering committee head, is equally certain: "That's wrong."

"There's nothing in the bill that precludes us having the land," says Drew. "I was consulted about the language of this bill; I was involved in drafting the bill. We rejoiced when it was signed by the governor."

Drew says plans for the PAI are coming along well. "We've got a lot of people who've committed dollars to us. In writing, I have well over $80 million," he claims, although he will not name his donors. "We haven't collected--can't collect until we get a signed lease," he says. Drew hopes that will happen by November or December. "We're working on lease arrangements with the museum now."

That's news to Wheeler. "I've never heard of such a thing," he exclaimed when asked last week about Drew's plans. And, Wheeler says, "as far as I know, I haven't made a deal with the Senate."

"What the governor has committed to with the PAI people is not clear," he says. "I'm getting mixed signals. But nothing is going to happen until we all sit down together; and nothing will happen without the agreement of the legislature and the governor." Deputy Secretary of Cultural Resources Elizabeth F. Buford would only comment that she is "trying to forge a compromise on the Performing Arts Institute issue."

Mary D.B.T. Semans, the Durham philanthropist and a member of the PAI site selection committee, says the Blue Ridge Road site was chosen for its commanding position and its vista, and because the committee felt that "synergy with the museum is very important." But while Wheeler says that the museum could benefit from proximity to the PAI, he is ambivalent about it being exactly there in the form proposed.

"The Pelli project is a monster," says Wheeler. "It will eat up a lot of space, and I'm very concerned about keeping this as a park-like green space. I don't want a wall of concrete on Blue Ridge Road." And, he notes, now that the land has been transferred, any plans for its use would necessarily go before the museum's board of trustees. "Is it going to happen in Durham? Probably. Will it happen here? Maybe."

Ah, Durham. "I've never given up on bringing it to Durham," says Gulley. "From a land-use perspective, the Blue Ridge Road site would be a bad choice. It would promote suburbanization and further deteriorate the transportation system--it is not even on a planned rail line."

But the PAI committee has no love for Durham's urban sites. Says Semans: "The only place Durham has ever showed us is there back of the ballpark, and it would be overshadowed by the ballpark. In the Durham site, it would be cluttered all around. It would be a slap in the face to the architect."

However the PAI committee feels about the Durham site, others are much more positive about some kind of theater going in near the forthcoming American Tobacco campus redevelopment. If it can be the Performing Arts Institute, great. But if not, then civic leaders would like to see another facility that would be attractive to Durham's greatest performance asset, the American Dance Festival.

"We want to keep the ADF here," says Mayor Nick Tennyson. "I'd like to have the Performing Arts Institute--but I don't want to hold anything up waiting for them."

Durham City Manager Lamont Ewell says the city is working with the SFX Corporation, which owns and operates entertainment venues around the country (including Alltel Pavilion) on a feasibility study for a 4,000- to-5,000-seat theater in downtown, one that could collapse to half that size for ADF use. Only halfway through the study, Ewell is pretty much of the opinion that it is feasible, based on the early analysis.

Financing arrangements and the relationship between the city and SFX in what would be a public-private partnership are still under consideration. Local officials and representatives of other local venues will visit another SFX site, outside Hartford, Conn., later this month to examine SFX's operation of a similar theater there.

Everyone not connected with the PAI hopes that a downtown theater would keep the American Dance Festival in Durham. What dance lovers may not remember is that the ADF has more than an artistic importance: It also has an economic impact on Durham. Losing the ADF to Raleigh or any other location would be a blow, and not just one to civic pride.

So a lot of powerful people are lined up working to keep ADF in Durham, and they think a downtown theater at least somewhat tailored to ADF's needs would be the way to do it. City Manager Ewell says "it is certainly our hope" that this theater would be a home for the ADF. He has forwarded the ADF needs list to SFX.

Tom White, president of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, says that the Chamber has reaffirmed its support for having the PAI in Durham, but he notes that the SFX project "would give us another opportunity to retain the ADF." Peter Anlyan, general manager of CBC Durham Real Estate, the arm of Capital Broadcasting that is working on the American Tobacco redevelopment, says that CBC is "supporting it wholeheartedly. We all think a theater is a great idea and we want to keep the ADF here."

The American Dance Festival has long since outgrown its quarters at Duke, where it has been based since Terry Sanford brought it to North Carolina more than 20 years ago. For the past several years, ADF has been actively looking for a new home with no success, so it must be pleasant to have the prospect of being courted by two new suitors. (ADF representatives declined to comment for this story.) The ADF needs to go somewhere and presumably will go where it gets the best offer. It may be a boon for ADF, but what a shame for the rest of us to have intra-regional competition for its favors.

Could the city-SFX project and the PAI somehow work together? Without the ADF, the PAI may flounder, and clearly, no holds will be barred in the attempt to keep the ADF in Durham. Ewell says the city is going ahead with its plans. "We couldn't wait for the PAI folks to decide," he says, "but would encourage them to join us in our early planning." EndBlock

  • The jury's still out on the location of the new Sanford Performing Arts Institute.


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