By Mary Hladky
Four years after a consortium of arts organizations proposed building a performing arts complex and following two years of complicated negotiations, supporters have secured the City Council’s blessing of a deal that allows the Center for Arts & Innovation to be built in Mizner Park.
But all the group’s efforts to get this far pale before what it still must accomplish so that shovels can hit the ground and the doors finally open to a center with the latest in design and technology.
First and foremost, the center and its team must raise $115.4 million from donors to construct a complex that includes a completely renovated amphitheater, new performing arts center, jewel box theater, rooftop terrace, outdoor performing arts spaces and garage.
If they fail, the city or center officials can terminate a development agreement and the center’s 94-year lease of 1.8 acres of city-owned land where the complex will be built. City Council members are adamant that they will not finance the project.
Center President Andrea Virgin has no doubt that she and her team can raise the money. “We feel very confident,” she said.
They are on a tight timeline to do so. Most immediate, they must raise $71.3 million of hard construction costs, or about 62% of the project’s estimated total cost. Of that, 25% must be in hand within one year, 50% in two years and 75% in three years.
Money for all of the hard and soft construction costs must be in hand before a building permit is issued.
They also must raise $22 million in reserve and endowment funds.
So far, the center has received $14 million and has pledges for $25 million more. But center officials only now are starting fundraising in earnest.
That’s because many potential donors wanted the land lease to be approved, providing assurance that the project would be built, before they made commitments.
Virgin sees a large pool of well-to-do local philanthropists and cultural arts supporters who she is certain will step forward, including out-of-staters who relocated to the area during the pandemic.
“So many wonderful people approached us. They came from culturally rich areas,” she said. “While our low taxes and weather are fantastic, they want to instill more of the culture from those areas.”
Beyond the pressure to secure donations, center officials face additional deadlines, including to submit detailed plans for the project, obtain development approval and building permits from the city and raise money for the reserves and endowment.
As they sought support from the City Council, center officials presented stunning renderings of the project they envision. But those were conceptual.
Now, they and their team of consultants must develop firm plans for what actually will be constructed. That work has awaited a full-blown fundraising effort so that they have the money to pay for it.
Under terms of the deal reached with the city, they have a maximum of 10.5 years to complete the project, in 2033. But Virgin wants to beat that date by a considerable margin.
“We will move as quickly as possible,” she said.
If all goes well, her goal is to begin construction in 2025, the year that marks the city’s 100th birthday. The deal gives center officials three years to complete construction, so doors would open in 2028.
Hopes were high that city and center would come to terms at the Oct. 12 meeting where a final deal awaited City Council approval.
But just like at an Aug. 22 meeting when the council was first scheduled to vote on it but got tangled up in a dispute over city liability in the event of a default, the ride was bumpy.
Council member Monica Mayotte called for firm fundraising deadlines for hard construction costs, with specific amounts to be raised each year for three years.
Her intent, she said, is that the deadlines would allow the city to know if the center is successful in fundraising.
Center officials had no objection to that, Virgin said after the meeting, describing Mayotte’s request as “reasonable.”
But the meeting grew heated when Mayor Scott Singer said he remained concerned about the project’s cost.
He had asked for updated estimates in August that took into account inflation. The revised costs that center officials provided in September pegged the estimated price tag at $115.4 million, a 30% increase.
Singer asked if city staff had analyzed the new cost figures. Deputy City Manager George Brown said he had done a cursory analysis which showed that the increases seemed reasonable.
Singer said he would have preferred that the city hire an outside expert to conduct a detailed review. “I still have some discomfort,” he said.
That drew a sharp rebuke from Deputy Mayor Andrea O’Rourke. “I feel we are moving the goalposts,” she said, drawing strong applause from cultural arts supporters in the audience.
Center officials, she said, had responded to all requests made of them.
“We keep making it harder and harder,” she said. “I would like to see it move forward and not put obstacles in the way.”
Singer then proposed contract language that made it crystal clear that the center would pay for the entire cost of the project, whatever the final amount ends up being, even though such wording already existed in terms hammered out between the center and the city.
His intent, he said, was to ensure that the center would not seek funding from the city to build, operate and maintain the complex.
Center attorney Ele Zachariades said center officials had no problem with two of Singer’s wording additions since they reflected the center’s already stated intent, but she did not understand the point of two others.
The debate ended after council member Andy Thomson proposed compromise wording on the third item that received a unanimous council vote.
But Singer said he could not vote in favor of the overall deal because of the construction cost figures, even though he supported the project and would encourage donors to come forward.
“All the things I have done have been to try to make the deal better and I want you to be incredibly successful,” he said. “Let me be a champion and cheerleader, as we all are.”
The resolution and ordinance that authorize the lease of Mizner Park land to the Center for Arts & Innovation were approved by a 4-1 vote, drawing cheers and applause from the audience.