News: CJ Exclusives

Council OKs Plan Raising Cost of Greensboro Arts Center

City will assume new bond debt to close projected $10 million funding gap

No steel girders have been raised on the site of Greensboro’s new downtown performing arts center, even though the cost of it already has.

In December the City Council agreed to take on more bond debt to close the $10 million budget gap on the projected cost of building the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, named for the project’s highest private donor.

The original cost estimate for the Tanger Center was $65 million, with the city contributing $30 million in bond debt and the remaining $35 million coming from private donations raised by the nonprofit organization Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro.

The city will serve as project manager and approve all construction and professional service contracts, funding the first $18.5 million in construction and equipment costs.

The city long has desired a new midsize performing arts center to replace the 57-year-old War Memorial Auditorium, which is part of the Greensboro Coliseum complex.

But voters twice rejected bond referendums — in 2006 and 2008 —- to renovate War Memorial.

City leaders believe the Tanger Center will continue Greensboro’s downtown revitalization on the northern end of Elm Street. That belief was legitimized in the eyes of many when high-powered developer Roy Carroll announced plans to build a hotel and a mixed use development just a couple of blocks away, across the street from New Bridge Bank Park.

But it quickly became clear that such a transformative project would not come cheap. Once the site was determined, the city began purchasing parcels of land at a cost of $11.4 million. The site has been cleared but construction has not begun, with an opening date set for late 2017 or early 2018.

As explained to the council at its Dec. 8 meeting, Coliseum director Matt Brown — who also will oversee the construction and operation of the Tanger Center — the ultimate goal is a high quality venue with excellent sight lines and sound quality that will attract repeat visitors.

Brown insists that the center’s stage, sound system, and seating will be state of the art. The sound system in particular must be high quality, he said, due to the variety of performances the center will host — one night a Broadway show, the next night the Greensboro Symphony.

“I’m certain that every seat in that venue will be a great seat and everyone will walk out realizing the value,” Brown said.
With that in mind, a good chunk of funding to close the budget will come from ticket fees. A $1 ticket surcharge already exists, but that initially was targeted for a “sustainability” fund to help local arts organizations.

Those funds are now being “repurposed,” which would raise $3.75 million. Arts organizations now will receive $120,000 annually out of the center’s sponsorship revenues.

Making the new allocation a set amount rather than relying on fluctuating ticket sales is a positive for the arts organizations, Brown told the council.

“I think the uncertainty of not knowing what they were getting has been vetted by the fact that they know they’re getting $120,000,” he said.

On top of the “repurposed” $1 ticket fee, Brown wants to boost the total ticket fee to $4. An additional $3.5 million would come from added private donations, another $2.1 million from boosting the number of VIP parking spaces, and another $4.4 million from reducing construction costs without compromising sight lines or sound quality.

No one representing Greensboro’s thriving arts community spoke for or against the new plan. In fact, there were no public speakers at all — for or against — the plan to reduce the budget gap.

Two council members — Tony Wilkins and Marikay Abuzuaiter — pressed Brown about the plan.

Wilkins expressed concern about ticket prices, given the $4 ticket fee. If ticket prices are too high, Wilkins reasoned, people will not buy them, thus reducing funds generated by the fees.

“If these don’t materialize, where does the funding come from?” Wilkins asked. “Do you see a scenario where we would have to go to the general fund?”

Brown noted that the success Durham Performing Arts Center already had a $3 ticket fee and more than likely would raise it to $4 in the next year.

Brown also assured the council that 150 dates per year at the Tanger Center was a “conservative estimate,” considering the fact that the outdated War Memorial Auditorium drew 116 dates in its final year.

“We’re always very conservative in our estimates, and I’ve believed in 150 dates from the get-go,” Brown said.

The plan passed 7-2, with Wilkins and Abuzuaiter voting “no.” But based on council comments, it was clear the votes were there to approve the new debt. The majority believes the center can be a success, and possibly lure companies providing jobs, without placing the burden on taxpayers.

“I don’t think you can ever say we’ve eliminated taxpayer exposure, but we’ve minimized it,” said Mayor Nancy Vaughan. “We have a phenomenal opportunity to do this with very little risk.”

Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.