By Mary Hladky
A cultural arts group’s ambitious proposal to build a performing arts center at Mizner Park moved closer to becoming reality on Oct. 13 when the City Council unanimously agreed to enter into negotiations to reach a deal.
The Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corp. hopes to completely renovate the existing 3,500-seat amphitheater and add a new theater building, additional indoor and outdoor performing arts spaces, a rooftop terrace and more parking.
As now envisioned, the Boca Raton Center for Arts and Innovation would cost $121 million, including $20 million for an endowment fund and reserves. It would be financed by donations from cultural arts supporters and corporations that have long wanted such a facility in the city.
If the city and the exploratory group agree, fundraising would start next year and the project would open in late 2026 or early 2027.
“On behalf of our organization, the donors who’ve funded this vision, and the countless stakeholders who’ve participated in its shaping, we are very grateful for the council’s support in moving this partnership forward and look forward to working with (city) staff to work out the details,” Andrea Virgin, the group’s president, said in a statement.
City Council members have conceptually supported the creation of a performing arts center, which was first proposed two years ago, and they did so again at the meeting.
“We all just want to make sure it succeeds in a way that works for everyone,” said Mayor Scott Singer. “To have this in our city would be a huge coup.”
“It is difficult to believe Boca does not have a concert hall or performing arts center,” said Deputy Mayor Andrea O’Rourke. “I think we should take advantage of this opportunity.”
But hurdles must be cleared to reach a final agreement.
The arts district group wants a 99-year ground lease on 3.6 city-owned acres in Mizner Park adjacent to the amphitheater, for which it would pay a nominal $1 per year, and is asking the city to continue paying $1.2 million a year for existing public programming at the amphitheater. The arts district group would assume the cost of maintaining the building.
The city has entered into such lease deals before. The Boca Raton Museum of Art, located on city land west of the amphitheater, has a 99-year ground lease and Brightline has a 29-year ground lease on city land east of the Downtown Library where its train station will be built.
Council members offered no objections to the ground lease, but its length will be negotiated. Singer said a 49-year lease is more “palatable.”
The two sides also will have to work out amphitheater operations. Council members want the city to continue operating the amphitheater, where it stages about 70 concerts and other events a year. Representatives of the exploratory group said they could agree to the city’s continuing to hold events, but they want to be in operational control and to hold their own events when the city isn’t using the building.
Although the meeting ended amicably, Singer nearly upended it when he said he had asked an economist he met in college to offer his thoughts on the proposed project.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, delivered sharp criticisms, saying the exploratory group’s statements that the project does not pose a financial risk or cost to the city and will generate a big economic benefit “are not accurate.”
The group’s analysis used a faulty method that is not “scientifically reliable or valid,” he said.
“The method relies upon a variety of unrealistic assumptions and was designed back in the 1930s to aid in Soviet economic planning,” he said. “We all know how that turned out.”
Clearly stunned by Zimbalist’s comments, Brett Egan, president of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management and a project consultant, responded forcefully. He said Zimbalist made “many, many misleading and blatantly inaccurate statements” and asked for a transcript of the comments so he could respond point by point.
The economic analysis methodology has been used by many other businesses and cultural organizations, including the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Brightline and many others, he said.
If the group does not raise enough money to fully fund the project, no construction will begin and the group will pay for any cost overruns, not the city, Egan said.
O’Rourke reacted quickly, saying Zimbalist’s comments were “a little bit of blindside and I think it is really unfair to the people who have worked so hard to make this presentation.”
Singer said he had not known what Zimbalist would say. “I didn’t ask Dr. Zimbalist to come today to torpedo anything,” he said.
Singer followed up at the City Council meeting the next night, offering a “mea culpa.” He said he had apologized to Virgin, Egan and Zimbalist.
“I didn’t mean to create confusion, dissension, heartache,” he said. “I try to bring people together.”
A member of one of the cultural groups that banded together to propose a cultural arts complex, but who has since withdrawn her support, also has raised concerns about the project.
Wendy Larsen, co-founder of the Festival of the Arts Boca, said, “It is a very ill-conceived project” that would be unaffordable for not-for-profit organizations such as hers to use.
“It is too expensive to build and too expensive to operate,” said Larsen, who started the Center for the Arts at Mizner Park along with her law partner, the late Charles Siemon. The two also raised money to build the amphitheater.
Other members of the consortium, however, remain strong project backers, including Dan Guin, executive director of Boca Ballet Theatre; Carole Boucard, president of the board of the Symphonia chamber orchestra; and Irving Lippman, executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
“It is certainly time for Boca Raton to have a performing arts center that can accommodate local arts groups with the kinds of programming Andrea has in mind,” Lippman said of Virgin. “I think you will find people eager to rally around the cause.”
Noting the wealth concentrated in the city, Boucard said she expects it will be possible to raise enough money to build the complex.
“I don’t see why we can’t raise that money, between corporations and businesses and private individuals,” she said. Ú