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Theater drama 

It doesn't take an engineering degree to see that Durham's cultural crown jewel, the Carolina Theater, needs some serious work. Just 10 years and more than $7 million after the extreme makeover that restored the grand edifice to its former glory, the theater has developed structural and cosmetic problems that threaten its integrity as a premier performance venue. Roof leaks have left visible blotches in the main hall's vaulted ceiling and coated the curtains with flecks of plaster. The heating and air conditioning system is failing. Rats have nibbled gouges in the wooden doors. The lack of passable sound and lighting systems hobbles the theater's ability to compete for prime shows.

To bring the theater up to standard would require as much as $5 million, according to estimates. Like most municipalities these days, the city is strapped for cash and has no money for such things. And the Carolina is but one of Durham's structures with deferred maintenance issues totaling about $70 million. "We have not kept up with our public buildings," says City Council member Eugene Brown, a member of the Carolina Theater board. "It's an embarrassment."

Repairing and maintaining Durham's theaters and other arts institutions is a top recommendation of the city's Cultural Master Plan, a draft of which has just been completed by the consulting firm Wolf, Keens & Co. after years of discussion. "It is pointless to consider developing new facilities while existing cultural facilities are left without proper upkeep," the consultants wrote.

"Pointless" would rank among the mildest of the pejoratives hurled at Durham's leadership in recent years, so it probably won't bother those folks who are backing the biggest, baddest arts building ever proposed for the Bull City--a $48 million downtown showcase theater to be located near the American Tobacco project. The development team, headed by Chapel Hill developer Phil Szostak and media giant Clear Channel Entertainment (which would manage the theater), is expected to finalize a deal in the next couple of months and present it to the city for approval.

The theater's boosters are quick to point out that the project will differ from previous cultural bricks-and-mortar projects in one key respect: It will be fully financed without city or county money and won't cost residents a dime, now or in the foreseeable future. A one-cent increase in the local hotel occupancy tax passed by the legislature in 2002 will pay for about half of the construction and debt service payments. A reserve account stocked with private contributions, revenue from naming rights, luxury suites and other funds will cover the balance as well as maintenance and operating costs. And while cities usually pick up the tab if their stadiums or other big-box entertainment centers run a deficit, the management contract will be structured so that Clear Channel will bear the risk if revenue and attendance projections fall short.

Furthermore, supporters say, the project will offer substantial benefits to Durham's ever-struggling but vital arts community. To accommodate the American Dance Festival, the theater will be convertible from 4,000 seats to a more intimate capacity of 2,000. Clear Channel has discussed generating sponsorships for the Carolina Theater and St. Joseph's Performance Center to offset whatever cannibalizing of their performers and audiences might occur once the new building is up and running.

Downtown Durham Inc. President Bill Kalkhof, who has been in the midst of the negotiations, insists that all these items will be included in the agreement or there'll be no deal. "It's been made clear to the development team," Kalkhof says.

Meeting the demands of the various stakeholders will be no simple task, and any number of glitches could derail the plan. Duke is being asked to pony up a bundle for the reserve account (sources say the current figure approaches $10 million) as its contribution to keeping ADF in Durham. Aside from not wanting to appear the bad guy, the university has little incentive to underwrite a theater it will have little use for and will ultimately conflict with its own plans to build a performing arts complex on central campus.

As yet, the Carolina Theater board is not convinced that the new facility won't compete directly with the Carolina and further strain its resources (even though the project's handle was altered from "performing arts theater" to the more politically palatable "event center"). Despite promises to seek sponsorships for the theater, it's not clear how or if that would work, or how it would be enforced. Asked by the developers to take a position in favor of the new project, the board declined and instead issued a statement that reflected its concern. "We request that needed maintenance of current facilities would be addressed prior to building new facilities," the board wrote. "Beyond that--we are unable to go on record with a position on the matter due to a host of uncertainties."

Should the theater not be the resounding success that its backers anticipate, the idea that Clear Channel will stand for any long-term losses is ludicrous. An effort will be made to lock Clear Channel into a contract for "as long as possible," says Kalkhof, and sources say that a 10- or 15-year agreement is under discussion. But Kalkhof acknowledges that forcing one of the nation's 800-pound entertainment gorillas to abide by any such agreement could be tough. "Anybody who can write a check to a big law firm can get out of a contract any time they want," he says.

Ten or 15 years is perhaps too far away to interest the decision-makers, who have shown remarkable shortsightedness in assessing what their previous arts investments would need beyond the ribbon cutting. But even if Clear Channel sticks to its part of any bargain, the city would be in a poor position to make demands after the agreement expires, at which point they would have to eat any deficits or go begging. And, of course, what may be a good market today might be a tough sell tomorrow. Think Dean Dome.

Even if the development team pulls off the deal and satisfies everyone, an obvious question remains--is this new theater really needed, or could the $40-plus million from the hotel tax be better used to enhance the city's arts landscape? A superficial "feasibility study" for the theater was produced early in 2003 to justify the project, but the results were suspect. The consultant, for example, predicted that the operation would turn a million-dollar profit and be the eighth most-attended theater venue in the country--in its first year.

The Cultural Master Plan was supposed to answer the question. First conceived in the mid-1990s, the plan languished on the drawing board until it was finally funded--ironically, by the same occupancy tax increase the legislature passed to pay for the theater. Though the draft skirts the issue of the new theater, referring to it only in passing as though it were a done deal, the language is less ambiguous when discussing one of its priorities: to develop a "rigorous system of guidelines" for evaluating new projects. Doing this, the consultants wrote, would mean that "proposals for a facility such as the... Event Center would be required to think through the impact on the cultural sector early in the conceptual process."

The draft also makes a pithy, on-point observation: "Little of this plan will be implemented without additional human and financial resources."

And there's the rub, because the financial resources simply aren't there, not for maintenance of existing facilities, not for a history museum, not for rehearsal and studio space, not for Durham Central Park, not for any of the other priorities identified in the plan. And sucking out a fat chunk of change for the theater via the hotel tax decreases the prospects of finding such resources in the future. That's why the Master Plan executive committee recently authorized drafting a letter of concern about the new theater, a letter that the developers are frantically trying to quash behind the scenes before it reaches the City Council.

It's clear why Capitol Broadcasting, which controls both the ballpark and American Tobacco project, wants the theater. It's plain to see why Clear Channel, which has been searching for a mid-sized venue in the area for several years, wants it. It's easy to understand why starry-eyed city officials want it. But it's not at all evident why the citizens of Durham should want it, especially if it means having to forget about other, higher priorities. That's a discussion that needs to happen before the project is set in stone. It's time to get the horse back in front of the cart. EndBlock

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