The idea of a Performing Arts Center in downtown Rochester is not new. And Rochester Broadway Theatre League Board Chairman Arnie Rothschild has been a key player in arts-center discussions since the beginning.
The initial idea --- developed in 1997 by a broadly based task force --- was to build a complex with several theaters, to serve RBTL and its Broadway touring shows, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Garth Fagan Dance, and smaller performance groups. The large task force was then disbanded, and a smaller, more select group was appointed to move the project forward.
After initial enthusiasm, the momentum for a full-fledged center seemed to die. And the Eastman School of Music announced plans to renovate Eastman Theatre to serve its own needs and the Rochester Philharmonic's.
Last week, however, the Performing Arts Center was again front-page news. Governor George Pataki endorsed a $200 million downtown Renaissance Center, to include an arts center, the transit center, and a Monroe Community College Advanced Technology Education Center at the corner of East Main Street and North Clinton Avenue.
The plan had evolved recently, and quickly. And it took many local officials, including Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, by surprise. (Johnson's reaction to the announcement can be found on page 9.)
Also surprised was Sarah Lentini, president of the Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester. Lentini has been meeting with a "Performing Arts Center Steering Committee," formed a year ago to revive Performing Arts Center discussions. The steering committee includes representatives from nearly every local performing arts group, says Lentini, as well as Mayor Johnson and Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks. "I haven't heard anything about the Renaissance Center concept except for what I've read in the paper," Lentini said earlier this week.
Under the Renaissance Center plan, the Performing Arts Center would include two theaters: a large one for major productions like touring Broadway shows, and a smaller one with about 1,000 seats. But RBTL's Arnie Rothschild says the center would be built in stages, with the large theater built first. RBTL, which for years has pushed for a new facility for its shows, would be a major tenant.
Under the Renaissance Center plan, the smaller theater would be built second, says Rothschild, when money became available. A theater for Garth Fagan Dance --- an important component of the arts center when discussions began six years ago --- has not yet been included in the plan, and a Fagan spokesperson says Fagan Dance had not talked with Renaissance Center proponents. Rothschild says he hopes to help Fagan Dance secure a venue.
In a City Newspaper interview last week, Rothschild discussed the Renaissance Center project and his hopes that it will serve the needs of the entire community. Following is an edited version of that discussion.
City:Who's this performing arts center going to be for?
Rothschild: This concept is a wide-range-of-use kind of concept. In fact, in the most recent drawings that I've seen, there are actually two theater spaces. One of 2,700 seats and one that's either 900 or 1,200 seats, somewhere in that range. So it should accomplish a good share of what our community needs.
City: So it's going to have space for the smaller arts groups?
Rothschild: It has space for the smaller arts groups. Initially, when we did the Performing Arts Center task force, there were a number of needs identified. And two of the four needs are addressed within this venue: a roadhouse with new construction and a smaller venue. Third was a concert hall, which is going to be accomplished with the renovation of the Eastman. And the fourth was a room suitable for dance, and those conversations are going on continually with the Garth Fagan folks. Once we get this project moving forward, I'd like to try to be helpful if I could in assisting the Garth Fagan folks with theirs.
[According to Garth Fagan Dance Executive Director Ruby Lockhart, the dance company's search for its own performance theater is "on hold recently." "We're still formulating a plan for moving forward," she says. "We've had no dialogue with anyone regarding this proposal for a new Renaissance Center."]
City:Who's going to own the Renaissance Center?
Rothschild: I'm not sure how that ownership is going to be structured yet. I think the options are a public benefit corporation or a 501-C3. It's going to be some form of community-generated ownership.
City:So I assume management and operating costs still haven't been determined.
Rothschild: There's no way that any of those things have been decided, or are even projected. The first step is to try to figure out if you can build it. The next stage would be figuring out who's going to own it. And the third would be figuring out how we'd operate it. And then somebody has to develop a pro forma. Then there's another step, which is making sure we're accounting for all the venues in the marketplace. That we're not just pulling bodies from one building to another.
City:How is ownership and management generally determined for large public projects like this?
Rothschild: It's going to be governmental or extra-governmental, since it's going to be a community asset. I would guess it would be a public-benefit corporation, which are established to build things. Later on the ownership can be rolled over to an authority. The difference between authorities and public-benefit corporations is that authorities have bonding ability.
City:Describe the process that led to this conclusion of building the Renaissance Center.
Rothschild: Honestly, I'm not aware of all the people who were involved in the process of looking at it. I was pleasantly surprised, on the day that Maggie Brooks announced her candidacy, to hear her make the Performing Arts Center project a priority. I had heard over the last couple of years about a lot of opportunities in locating the Performing Arts Center project within 1,500 feet of a transit facility.
All the way through the process of trying to develop the Performing Arts Center, our primary concern had been how we leverage the dollars that would allow us to do that. So we looked at every available avenue. The reason this particular concept had appeal to me was that it combined federal dollars and donated buildings that would change the site acquisition costs.
My role, because I'm not an urban planner, has always been to talk about the economic advantages and the needs for a Performing Arts Center. I think there has been a significant amount of conversation offline, among people with leadership positions in the community, sharing information about the concept. But certainly nobody could've moved it forward until after the election was decided.
City:You're hoping that some federal funds will come through the Department of Transportation's Livable Communities Initiative. Do you have any sense of how much money that could provide?
Rothschild: As far as I understand, it's a matching program. It allows us, hopefully, to raise half of what we originally felt we might have to raise on a local basis. Whatever it is, and whatever the requirements are, it is certainly going to be a new funding stream that nobody had ever looked at prior to the evolution of getting this thing involved with the transit facility.
The transit facility provides two things: funding sources and economies in terms of shared kinds of construction, like heating and air conditioning. It can accomplish generating a much nicer venue and at the same time allow for some creative programs that bring in actual dollars.
City:Let's talk a little bit about Broadway. What's the status of Broadway shows nationally?
Rothschild: There's been continual growth of touring Broadway product. Today it looks like there's going to be another 10 years of abundant product.
The nature of touring Broadway has changed. It used to be that Broadway shows were star-based shows. They've evolved to much more highly produced kinds of performance. That means that the kinds of venues that can accommodate them have to change and evolve.
City:And there's a demand for this increased product?
Rothschild: Absolutely --- which is why you're seeing different kinds of shows. Today you see three kinds of Broadway shows: shows of original Broadway content; movies that end up becoming plays, like Hairspray; or shows that are created based on existing music, as we saw with Mamma Mia!. And there are a lot of shows that are traditional, that keep coming back, like Annie, Cats, Les Misérables. There's a bunch of different ways that product is being generated. And that trend will continue because there are more and more venues, more people who want to see them, more and more convenience involved in taking them out to the marketplaces.
What used to be a trip to New York City to see plays has changed to a lot of regional performance areas that people travel to. You see it in Toronto, Rochester, Cincinnati. It's been a rapidly changing dynamic. In fact, the amount of time that it takes for a show to be successful on Broadway and then head for the road is substantially shorter than it used to be.
City:What's been the pattern of attendance for Broadway shows locally over the past five years or so?
Rothschild: Well, that becomes a really interesting question, because one of the concerns RBTL had was that because of the disrepair of the Auditorium Center, attendance was moving down. So we were forced --- we never wanted --- to try to figure out how to acquire the Auditorium Center so we could renovate it, because we only leased the space. Because of that, a lot of this year's shows become more stable. In the past, a lot of the older theatergoers did not want to go to the Auditorium Center anymore, and they're an important market.
City:Will the new theater allow us to get different types of shows here? Or are we always going to get the same level of performances because of the size of our market?
Rothschild: The new theater will allow you to have different lengths of run, which becomes important. You're always going to be tied to the product that exists. But shows will sit down in markets based on the market stability or the ability to support the show.
New construction is important because patrons now want different amenities. They want bigger lobbies, more concession operations, more ability for catered events, more kinds of things that allow for corporate involvement. That's not any different than how it's been with sports venues.
Because of that, newly constructed facilities have accommodated greater regional attractions than renovated structures. There is no place in the country where renovating a structure has led to big increases. But new venues, with bigger seats, with better restroom operations, with better concessions operations, with air-conditioning, would lend themselves to a wide range of things.
This particular venue is not being designed solely for Broadway. That will be the anchor. But there will be well in excess of 200 events a year on an ongoing basis just in the larger theater alone.
City:What types of events are these?
Rothschild: Well, you do music events, you can do corporate events, you can do comedy events. That size room lends itself to good kinds of medium-sized entertainment events. And what ends up happening is because the price-point of entertainment moves up, it is critically important that you have great concession operations. The model today is more like a movie-theater model than the old theater model. A lot of the margins generated are things like parking, concessions, and the per-capita expenditures that happen when you go to theater, that's part of the overall experience. Or the restaurant complexes that are nearby that are important when you choose your location.
City:What kind of impact is the new theater going to have on the Auditorium?
Rothschild: The Auditorium Center is probably a great 1,500-seat venue. At 1,500 seats it can accommodate less-sophisticated productions. Even with the increased restroom capacity it's still potentially problematic. There are a lot of events that go in there that not a lot of people are aware of. There are a lot of music programs, a lot of ethnic and comedy programming. So there's always a place for the Auditorium Center, because it's a very user-friendly venue. The question was whether it could ever become the major venue. And it's a wonderful building, but it probably suffers more from location and security difficulties than anything else.
City:So renovations don't allow you to do everything that you would need to do to make the Auditorium Theatre a really successful contemporary theater?
Rothschild: Right. In the old model of Broadway, a star would be on Broadway and they'd do it for a number of years; then they might head out to a few markets over a short period of time. That's not the model anymore. Now it's these really incredibly produced shows.
It doesn't matter to people who the star of Phantom is, or who the star of Beauty and the Beast is. It's a quality-control question. But when it comes into a market, retail thrives, restaurants thrive, bus tours come in. Of the 112,500 people who attended Phantom the first time it came to Rochester, better than 34 percent came from outside of the five-county metro area. The economic impact of these regional theaters is just incredible.
City:Is it true that certain producers insist on a certain amount of space or visibility for concessions?
Rothschild: Not only concessions, but their merchandise. They move in with T-shirts, CDs. So it's the merchandising in addition to the concession operations that are a mandate, along with the quality of dressing rooms, the ease and security of venues. We stood to lose a tremendous amount of Broadway product if we didn't renovate the Auditorium, because of dressing rooms and complaints that shows would get when they're trying to control quality. The quality of the theater is critical in the decision to come to a market.
City:Does RBTL get any share of profits from concession sales?
Rothschild: In the Auditorium equation? Concessions, yes. Merchandising, no. RBTL is not a promoter or an at-risk promoter. It's a facilitator of a lot of events. [Presenter] Albert Nocciolino takes the risk on a show. RBTL does all the staging, renting the venue, the ticketing, the things that enable the show. It's more a facilitating and educational institution. Our revenue shares derive from continual use of the venues and the concessions we operate in the venues.
City:How important are concession sales to RBTL's revenue share?
Rothschild: They are hugely important in all entertainment and sporting events. They are less significant in the Auditorium Theatre than they are in the rest of the country because there's not enough concession space. And when you have an intermission, people can't get to counters. This goes back to the ease of design.
City:And that's something the renovations could never have helped you with.
Rothschild: No, can never help.
City:What about public input at this phase? I think a lot of people feel the Renaissance Center project has come out of nowhere. What role will the public have in the development of this new Performing Arts Center?
Rothschild: Maggie Brooks has been meeting with the folks in the Arts & Cultural Council on an ongoing basis. And I think her message has been consistent --- developing arts venues to help the community grow has been a priority for her because she sees it as a critical element.
But those conversations are continual. Is it possible to develop the perfect scenario where everything [in the Performing Arts Center] is built at the same moment? I doubt it.
When the original task force met, we identified a number of needs. And early on, people began to price what that would represent in terms of dollars, and it was cost prohibitive. So what you do is you build those things that will have the greatest amount of ticket appeal, and then you start adding additional venues from there.
The thinking is that the large venue will sell enough tickets to allow the smaller theater to function and prosper. Our focus is to continually create opportunities for arts organizations. I think that sometimes gets misunderstood as "I want this for me and there's no other step."
City:So you would start with the larger theater, and then you'd use what money you make from the large theater to build the smaller theater and whatever else.
Rothschild: Right. It's like university athletic departments. The football and basketball teams will sell a lot of tickets. And because of the success of those athletic programs, you're able to develop a new pool for the swim team and a new fencing arena. You start adding a lot of additional kinds of venues. I think the more people you get to start sampling arts, culture, and entertainment --- it goes back to this rising tide that lifts all boats.
City:Why didn't the City of Rochester have a greater role in the work that led up to the announcement of the Renaissance Center?
Rothschild: I do know that there have been conversations between Maggie [Brooks] and Bill [Johnson] about the importance of these things being built downtown. And there are some wonderful people in city leadership who have been supportive of a Performing Arts Center for a long time. We just all got frustrated in trying to figure out how to get it done. But people like [City Council President] Lois Giess served on the initial task force. [Deputy Mayor] Jeff Carlson served on the task force. Along with [former county executive] Jack Doyle, the mayor was one of the creators of the task force.
Certainly everybody's involvement has been critical. I think what may have changed this dynamic a little bit was the donation of those buildings by Max Farash to the county.
City:If you could have changed something along the way, in the planning stages of this project, what would it be?
Rothschild: I wish I had been a little bit better of a communicator, so the arts community understood that my role as RBTL chair was first to fix the problems with the RBTL, second improve its operations, and third look long term. It was apparent to me that long term meant developing more performance spaces. And it wasn't just for RBTL. It was for the city of Rochester and the area.