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Culture club

The Auditorium Theatre joins the city’s cultural district

by and

Would it surprise you to hear that the cultural district downtown does not include the Rochester Museum & Science Center, Strong Museum, Memorial Art Gallery, or Geva Theatre?

            "We're going to be forming a committee to look at that whole issue, whether it makes sense for us to expand the boundaries more," says City Council President Lois Giess, also a Cultural Center Commission member.

            The commission and the cultural district were created more than 20 years ago to prevent the YMCA and Eastman School of Music from leaving downtown. The commission has state-enabled powers, specifically condemnation and bonding authority. There is bipartisan representation from the city and county on the commission, and private interests are represented, as well.

            The commission sunk a significant amount of money and effort into improving the area around the Eastman School and the YMCA. The East End parking garage was built, streetscapes were improved, properties were acquired, and government became a "key player," according to County Legislator Bill Benet, in the negotiations to keep the YMCA and Eastman School downtown.

            "We were focused very, very intently on that specific area," Benet says. "It had a spillover effect. That spillover effect was the whole revitalization of the East Avenue area."

            The Little Theatre was redeveloped. Restaurants sprang up.

            "Now you have what has become the East End, which is an extremely vibrant area," Benet says.

            The boundaries of the cultural district are on the verge of being extended to include the Auditorium Theatre at 875 East Main Street. The legislature approved the expansion. City Council will vote later this month, but it appears to have the council's backing. The extension needs to happen to secure a five-year loan for theater improvements. An anonymous private lender is loaning the Rochester Broadway Theatre League --- soon-to-be owners of the Auditorium Theatre --- $1.6 million to pay for enlarging the theater's bathrooms, installing new seats, a new sound system, and for making improvements to the main lobby areas.

The renovations to the Auditorium Theatre have already been completed to anticipated success, according to RBTL President Don Jeffries.

            "People used to come and complain all the time. It wasn't a great experience," he says. "It was great to see the shows, but it was uncomfortable. The seats were uncomfortable. The lines in the bathroom were so long [that] by the time intermission came around, you had a choice, either get a drink or go to the bathroom."

            Average attendance for individual shows has increased anywhere from 5 to 10 percent since the remodeling, Jeffries says, and the number of season ticket holders is expected to jump, as well. (Season tickets go on sale in April.)

            "We're seeing a lot of new faces around," he says. "People are real excited about it."

            The Cultural Commission is guaranteeing the $1.6 million loan that is paying for the renovations. To do that, the theater has to be contained in the cultural district. The commission has never guaranteed a loan before. Arnie Rothschild, former RBTL chairman, says that in light of current economic conditions and as less and less government funding is available for the arts, groups like the Cultural Commission need to be innovative.

            "If government can't fund arts, government can do things like loan guarantees to arts organizations," he says. "It's a new and evolved kind of model. In the realities of today's economy, what ways can we figure out to try and fund this renovation?"

            The loan will be paid back over a five-year period. The yearly payment escalates until year five, when a $300,000 payment is due, along with a $400,000 balloon payment for the balance of the loan.

Putting the commission in the position to guarantee the loan shouldn't compromise the body at all, Benet says.

            "Those funds are non-pledged funds. They're not needed for something else," he says. "Pretty much everything that was envisioned to be constructed... has either been constructed or is in the works."

            The city-county partnership which is the basis of the commission says to Benet that the loan is a good risk.

            "I have a lot of confidence that they've done their due diligence on the loan. And I respect that," he says. "Bill Coppard [head of the commission] and the blend of city and county people that make up the Cultural Center Commission... that gives me a certain degree of confidence that it's not somebody pulling the wool over my eyes."

            The fact that some of the commission's money will be tied up over the life of the loan doesn't bother Giess, either.

            "This is an important project for the community," she says. "The Cultural Commission was put together to enhance the city's cultural assets. I think it's true to mission."

            The commission is using its East End Garage reserve fund to guarantee the loan. The purpose of the fund is to maintain the garage, but it can be used in other ways, too, like making loans to develop properties. The commission, for instance, loaned $1.5 million from the reserve fund to Sagamore on East, LLC for the 107,000-square-foot Sagamore on East mixed-housing project slated for East Avenue.

            "We recognize that the assets of the garage have some leverage," Giess says.

The move to extend the boundaries of the cultural district has not raised many eyebrows, at least in the county legislature. The measure sailed through committee with only one hitch. Republican Ray Santirocco was concerned about how the future downtown performing arts center would impact the Auditorium Theatre and how the two venues would co-exist in this market. (Santirocco has since withdrawn his objections to the cultural district extension.)

            There is a real need for theater space in Rochester, Jeffries says, and the venues will complement each other.

            "Right now, because our Broadway shows run 10 to 12 nights, there's a lot of times people would like to use the theater where they can't," he says.

            Recently, RBTL had the opportunity to book Blues legend BB King to perform at the Auditorium the first week in February.

            "We couldn't, because we had a Broadway show in here," Jeffries says.

            With the addition of the performing arts center, Jeffries says, the community can have both.

            "BB King is not going to be the kind, in my opinion, that can fill the War Memorial, but he can fill the Auditorium," he says. "This way, we'd be able to do both. That's a totally different crowd that's going to go to the BB King show or going to see Le Miz."

            RBTL is trying to reschedule King.

So the Auditorium Theatre is in, but what about Geva? Or RMSC? Or Strong Museum? Or the Memorial Art Gallery?

            "When you think about it, [they're] all right there, just on the outskirts of the cultural district," Benet says. "Maybe at this point in time it might be good to take another look and see if we could broaden the district a little bit. That would further strengthen the southeast cultural quadrant."

            The commission is going to be forming a committee, Giess says, to study further extending the boundaries. But, she says, the challenge is money. The area around the Eastman School was improved because of a significant influx of cash. Without a bunch of money to invest, she says, there may not be much value in expanding the district.

            "We have limited assets. If there was this wonderful infusion of money, I think it would be a good vehicle," she says. "But I don't see an infusion of money on the horizon, so I'm not sure how much value it would give to the space we might expand to."