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The city should do an 'arts impact' study

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City Council's big, ornate Chambers in City Hall was packed last week with people concerned about the future of the key downtown piece of real estate known as Parcel 5. Mayor Lovely Warren has chosen a combination of a new theater for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League and an apartment building created by Morgan Communities. If they flesh out their plans to her staff's satisfaction, she'll likely ask City Council to sell the land to RBTL and Morgan for the project.

Since her announcement in April, though, there's been pushback, from other arts organizations and from Rochesterians wanting part or all of the parcel kept undeveloped for festivals and other public uses. In response, City Council held a public forum on the issue on Thursday.

I'm not sure what's best for Parcel 5, but I do know this: City officials should give serious consideration to these concerns. I'll share thoughts about public space another week, but right now I'll echo the arts groups' plea: The city should commission an independent study of how a new RBTL theater might impact other arts organizations.

There've been studies before, of course – including one two years ago, before the mayor sought proposals for Parcel 5. But that one dealt with whether there's a demand for a performing arts center – with a big theater for RBTL, a mid-sized one for groups like Garth Fagan Dance, and a smaller one.

That study presented two options: a single theater for RBTL and something with multiple theaters. The consultants recommended the single theater, for RBTL.

There hasn't been a study of how that might impact other arts groups, which – like those throughout the country – worry about making ends meet. Rochester has a wealth of arts offerings, but audiences have limited money and limited time. State funding for the arts has declined precipitously. The big money from Rochester's Big Three industries is gone. The climate in Washington is anti-arts.

RBTL leaders argue that a new theater, with additional space and additional shows, will increase public interest in the arts, that it will bring new excitement, new audiences – and new funding. Maybe it will.

But what if it doesn't? What if it simply draws some of that audience and funding from the other organizations and other venues?

Should city officials care?

Are arts organizations just businesses, where competition is the nature of the beast and government shouldn't care who wins and who loses?

City officials past and present have dealt with this issue for years, and I understand their frustration when they say we've done enough studies. But times have changed. Rochester has changed. The community's needs and finances have changed. The population is changing.

The mayor isn't expected to get the final RBTL-Morgan plans and send them to City Council until near the end of the year, if then. That gives consultants plenty of time to study the impact a new theater would have on the rest of Rochester's arts community.

That study is in everybody's interest – RBTL's, the city's, and the public's. The last thing RBTL should want – and the last thing the Warren administration should want – is a shiny new theater that has angered the leaders and supporters of nearly every other arts organization in town and an important slice of Rochester-area residents.

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