By Mary Hladky
Boca Raton City Council members are clearly impressed by a cultural group’s ambitious proposal to build a performing arts complex on city-owned land east of the Spanish River Library.
“Very, very compelling,” Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers said at an Oct. 9 workshop meeting where the proposal was unveiled to the council.
“I love the concept,” said council member Andy Thomson.
Even so, council members did not immediately support the newly formed Boca Raton Arts District Association’s request that the city essentially donate the 21-acre site by agreeing to a long-term ground lease with a token lease payment of $1 a year.
While council members did not close the door to the idea, they wanted more assurances that the association, an outgrowth of 15-member Boca Raton Cultural Consortium, has a financially sound plan to build the complex and keep it running without city subsidies.
“This is a bold vision, but fortune favors the bold,” said Mayor Scott Singer. “You are off to a good start, but you have a lot of work left to do.”
The association’s vision includes building four performing arts buildings that would house a main theater with up to 1,200 seats, music complex, music recital hall, dance complex and a black box/flex theater totaling 162,000 square feet on the lakeside land.
Surrounding those venues would likely be a 240-room hotel and convention center, restaurants, an open-air gathering and performing space and parking garage. The hotel, restaurants and other tenants would pay fees to help support the cultural venues.
The entire project could cost as much as $140 million, said Boca Ballet Theatre treasurer David Hammond, chief executive of CSI International.
The association modeled the performing arts complex on Liberty Station in San Diego, a mixed-use development on city-owned land focused on the arts.
The venues would provide new homes to existing cultural groups including the Boca Ballet Theatre and the Symphonia chamber orchestra, which now stage productions at borrowed school and Florida Atlantic University auditoriums.
The school venues lack lobbies, locations for receptions, concessions and will call, adequate restrooms and valet parking, said Boca Ballet Theatre board member Andrea Virgin, president of Boca Raton-based Virgin Design, a planning and engineering firm.
“I believe it has become incumbent on us and the other arts leaders, as well as the City Council, to create a legacy of culture for our current citizens and our children of tomorrow,” said Dan Guin, executive director and co-artistic director of Boca Ballet Theatre.
Virgin said the group scoured the city and concluded that the land along Spanish River Boulevard is the best location because it is big enough, undeveloped, on a lake, has easy access to and from Interstate 95, is near Florida Atlantic University and close to downtown.
The proposal has FAU’s support. Michael Horswell, dean of the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, said the university has outgrown its performing arts spaces. It makes sense, he said, to collaborate with city cultural groups and share space rather than build new facilities on campus.
City approval of a ground lease would spur the interest of potential donors who would be more likely to contribute if they see the cultural arts complex has city support and therefore is more certain of becoming reality, presenters said.
The ground lease also would allow the association to solicit a developer who, in addition to finalizing plans for the complex, would be asked to invest in an endowment fund that would support the project, Hammond said. Money also will be solicited from the state, county and corporations.
Association speakers stressed that the complex would be an economic boon to the city.
“The arts are really a big economic engine for a city,” said Jay Dick, senior director of state and local government affairs for Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. Nonprofit arts organizations employ 17,000 people in Palm Beach County, and cultural patrons spend a lot of money on things such as dining before a show on top of what they spend on tickets.
While lauding the concept, council members were cautious.
Singer said the city needs the 21 acres, and suggested philanthropists might be willing to donate other land. Rodgers questioned if a land donation is in the city’s best interest.
They wanted to know more details about project financing and whether the cultural community will provide adequate financial support.
Council member Andrea O’Rourke, a big proponent of the arts, said she thinks the organization’s financial plans are sound, but wants to see a “buy-in” from the cultural community.
“You have done incredible work,” she said. “Is it big? Yes, it is huge. We are all concerned about the financial side of it.”
The association has launched a capital campaign. Guin said he is certain Boca Raton residents will support the project now that they know what is proposed.
“The last thing we want to do is become a white elephant and dump it back on the city,” he said.
“Our job is to make sure your plan is viable enough for us to consider it,” Singer said.
After the meeting, Guin was upbeat about his prospects. He said his group will be able to demonstrate that it can raise enough money.
“We got what we were looking for,” he said. “We didn’t expect to walk in and walk out with the ground lease. It doesn’t work that way.
“There wasn’t one question from the council that I didn’t think was valid, and nothing we were discouraged about at all,” he added. “We know we have a heavy lift. But we also think we have the best plan to do that.”
The group, he said, popped open a bottle of champagne after the meeting.