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Desperately seeking WOW


Remember the Performing Arts Center?

            At one time, the center was to be the next big capital project to revitalize Rochester. Committees formed. Surveys were taken. Studies were completed.

            While it's impossible to determine precisely how much public money has been spent on the PAC process up to this point --- mainly because several public officials have logged countless hours sitting on various PAC committees --- a good starting point would be $350,000. That figure includes the $100,000 in city and county money for the 30-member committee that initially studied the need for a PAC. It also includes $250,000 for Flaum Management Company to conduct a study that proposes building a $45 million theater followed by two smaller community theaters.

            But ever since Flaum's study was submitted in January 2001, the PAC seems to have completely disappeared from the local radar screen.

            Politicians involved in the process direct their blame in any number of directions: a disinterested county executive, a sluggish economy, a lack of city-county unity, a dysfunctional Albany delegation.

            In the meantime, several local arts organizations --- the very groups whose needs seemed to form the demand for a PAC in the first place --- started to go off on their own.

            The Eastman School of Music plans to begin the first phase of its Eastman Theatre renovations this summer.

            Garth Fagan Dance Company, thanks a large private donation from philanthropist Jim Gleason and $370,000 in state and federal funds, is planning to build a combined dance studio and performance space downtown, possibly at the northwest corner of Main and Gibbs streets. (An economic impact study of that site is underway and should be finished within the next 100 days, says Ruby Lockhart, acting general manager.)

            The Rochester Broadway Theatre League hopes to purchase the Auditorium Theatre, and is in negotiations with the building's owners, Raymond and William Saucke. If a deal is struck, RBTL will embark on a $2.5 million theater renovation project --- which will include new seats, refurbished bathrooms, and the installation of air conditioning --- that will make the venue a viable option for Broadway shows while the PAC process continues.

            Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, now operating out of three downtown locations, is "moving forward with our own theater center," says Chris Kawolsky, producing director. "We are in the middle of a capital campaign to make that happen. A theater center is something we need immediately." If the funding is procured, DCT plans to renovate the 99-seat theater it occupies at 540 East Main Street and add a 200-seat theater to the same location.

            It's smaller arts groups like the DCT --- groups that would have used the small "black box" theater discussed in the initial proposals for a downtown PAC --- "that are really getting screwed," says Deputy Mayor Jeff Carlson. These same groups were concerned at the very beginning of the PAC process that their needs would be overlooked while officials focused on building a large roadhouse.

            Carlson is a PAC insider. He served on the 30-member blue-ribbon commission that began the studies for the PAC --- a group that included public officials, representatives from arts organizations, and developers. When that group was dissolved, Mayor Bill Johnson and County Executive Jack Doyle appointed a five-member committee --- including two representatives from City Hall, two from the county, and a Wegmans representative --- to continue, and hopefully refine, the PAC discussions.

            As far as Carlson's concerned, small performing arts groups lack the resources to secure funding for their own buildings.

            "How many times have you seen the Rochester Ballet, or Shipping Dock Theatre, or Blackfriars talking about how they all want their own building? And it's a disaster. They can't raise the money. They can't do the building," Carlson says. "So what we want to do is use the revenue from a major performance hall to fund a really versatile small theater with plenty of rehearsal rooms to accommodate a lot of these smaller groups. And that's just gotten completely lost sight of."

So where do we stand in the PAC process? And who's in charge? Not the five-member committee, which Carlson refers to as "a total waste of time."

            In the later stages of this group's meetings, Carlson says, "it became abundantly clear that Doyle had no interest in [the PAC] other than to use it to leverage money for his juvenile justice center. He's paid some lip service to it, but he was always gonna use it as a trump card for something he wanted. If he would have gotten the juvenile justice center, he might have been cooperative about something."

            Still, this group did make some headway. Mainly, it managed to receive $250,000 from Albany for Flaum's study. And that's where things start to get fuzzy.

            Assemblymember Susan John recalls several scattered approaches to Albany for funding.

            "At one time the county had lobbyists talk to us in Albany about it. And then a couple of years ago those folks were no longer authorized to talk about it. The county just stopped talking about it," John says. She recalls the delegation being approached for money and, one year, coming through with state funding for Flaum's study. But the delegation was approached the next year, John says, with a request for yet more money to conduct yet more studies.

            "We sort of balked at that notion," she says. "And as far as I know, they haven't come back to us."

            Carlson and John seem to agree that the Doyle administration became, in John's words, "completely uninterested" in the PAC project. However, they disagree on the nature of the funding requests made in Albany.

            "It wasn't 10 times that for more studies," Carlson says. "There's a lot of engineering work that goes into this. There's a lot of pre-development work. There's a ton of pre-development money that's going to be expended if you build a $60 million facility. A good chunk of that has to be used beforehand to get the ground elevations, to lay your pipes out. What had been asked was 'Look, this justifies us moving forward. Give us money to put this at least to some engineering shop draws.' And then they said 'Well, we're not using our money first.' I think Susan does not have quite the memory or attention span on that one."

            At least one thing is clear: The state is reluctant to provide more funding for the project without some signs of financial support from the private sector. And those signs never seemed to materialize, even before the economy hit the tank.

            "The state delegation has always indicated a strong level of support for the [PAC] concept," says Mayor Bill Johnson. "But they have constantly implored us to identify where the local money is going to come from. If we don't answer that question, we'll continue to come up short."

            In many senses, Johnson says, we already have.

            "With no private funding identified," he says, "that's where we blew it."

            The current estimate to build a roadhouse at the McCurdy's-Midtown Plaza site is $60 million. "The state says half of that is the best you'll get from us," Johnson says. So the plan now is to let the public sector step aside while the search for angel investors continues. "We need an angel for this project," he says before mentioning that he recently received a call from Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester Executive Director Sarah Lentini, who "has an idea she wants to pursue." (Lentini did not return calls seeking her comments.)

So what's it gonna be? A 2,000-seat roadhouse in Midtown? A flexible 1,200-seat theater built somewhere else downtown? A downtown "campus" that includes several arts centers, each serving a distinct need?

            At this point, nobody seems to know.

            Still, Carlson has some less-specific goals. "It's always been our contention that this needed a WOW factor," he says. "Anything in absence of a WOW factor may be culturally superb, but from a marketing point of view, it's something that doesn't really jumpstart the downtown economy."

            If it's done right, a PAC could be just the thing to begin downtown's revitalization, Johnson says. "For the performing arts, we need it," he says. "To jumpstart downtown, it's absolutely essential."

            But it's going to take an angel or two. And even when the economy is in good shape, those angels can be hard to find in Rochester.

Erica Curtis contributed to this report.