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A hugely ambitious arts complex could revive downtown. But a lot of work

A Complex Plan


Imagine heading to the city's center for a Saturday night on the town. Now imagine that instead of vacant sidewalks and empty storefronts, you see middle-aged couples from the 'burbs window shopping on East Grace Street as they clutch tickets to a play at TheatreVirginia. A group of thirtysomething Fan residents huddles under the marquee of Broad Street's National Theatre as they discuss the indie film they just viewed there.

Meanwhile, parents with young children head toward the Empire Theatre for a family-friendly production of "Snow White." A line zigzags from the box office of the Carpenter Center, where an African dance troupe is performing tonight. Conventioneers stream across Broad Street to join the throngs on the sidewalk, and to marvel at what a progressive, bustling city Richmond is.

This is the dream of a group of local arts and business leaders, and elected officials to construct the world-class Virginia Performing Arts Complex in downtown Richmond, where the abandoned Thalhimers building and foundering 6th Street Marketplace now stand.

The planned arts complex would stretch from the city-owned Landmark Theater, Theatre IV's Empire Theatre and the historic National Theatre to create a thriving arts corridor along Broad Street, from Belvidere eastward. The plan has the potential to transform downtown and area arts organizations, and to change the way outsiders and we think about Richmond. It is a plan backers are determined to make a reality by early 2006.

But that's all it is right now: a plan. A carefully thought-out plan, but a plan just the same. Another addition to the long list of plans promoted as downtown saviors: The new city hall. The Richmond Coliseum. The Richmond Centre. 6th Street Marketplace. Valentine Riverside. The expanded convention center.

And now the Virginia Performing Arts Complex.

This plan is different from its predecessors, its backers insist. "This is a proven one," says Stephanie Micas, executive director of the Arts Council of Richmond, who has visited numerous performing-arts centers throughout the country. "As you look around the country you see city after city … that has rejuvenated its downtown with a performing-arts complex as its cornerstone."

"This reflects a model that has worked," agrees Brad Armstrong, a board member of the Capital Region Performing Arts Foundation. "Just because something failed in the past doesn't mean we should stop doing things. … Sometimes you have to figure out what doesn't work to find out what does."

To make their plan work, Richmond's arts organizations will face challenges unlike any they have ever encountered before. They will have to transform the way they do business, raise money and think about their place in the city.

Here's a look at just some of what it will take to make the dream of the Virginia Performing Arts Complex a reality:

1. Cooperation
The Virginia Performing Arts Complex represents the first time in Richmond's history all of the major performing-arts groups have worked together for a common goal. Instead of competing for audiences, attention and money, the organizations involved have agreed for now to cooperate so they can attain improved performing arts facilities. If the Virginia Performing Arts Complex comes to fruition, these facilities will be operated and managed under one umbrella organization, the Capital Region Performing Arts Foundation.

The plan for the complex was developed under the watch of the Alliance for the Performing Arts, an 18-month-old organization made up of representatives from the Carpenter Center, Elegba Folklore Society, Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, Historic Richmond Foundation, Richmond Alliance of Professional Theaters, Richmond Arts Council, Richmond Ballet, Richmond Forum, Richmond Renaissance, Richmond Symphony, SPARC, TheatreVirginia, Theatre IV, Virginia Opera and the city of Richmond. Should one of the key players pull out for any reason, be it TheatreVirginia, the Carpenter Center, Theatre IV or the city of Richmond, which owns the Landmark Theater, the plan will not work.

For many of its members, building the complex will require sacrifices. For the Carpenter Center it means handing over to the foundation the $5.7 million it has raised for renovations and construction. For the Richmond Symphony it means going along with a performing-arts plan that does not include a concert hall dedicated to its use. For Theatre IV it means ceding control of the Empire Theatre, which it has owned since 1986.

But Phil Whiteway, Theatre IV's co-founder and business director, says that's more a relief than a sacrifice. "It makes a great deal of sense to have centralized management of the facilities," he says. "Things like fixing the roof — that lovely patch over there," he says, pointing to a water-damaged plaster wall in the Empire Theatre lobby, "I would love for that not to be my responsibility."

The plan for the complex also calls for centralized administrative offices for its member groups, meaning they could even share marketing, accounting, payroll and ticketing services. At the very least, a shared administration will mean "we will work close to each other for the first time," says Janine Bell, founder and director of the Elegba Folklore Society. "We will talk more and new ideas for collaboration will be spawned from those conversations."

(photo illustration by Jeffrey Bland / Style Weekly)
2. Money
A huge amount of money will be necessary to build the Virginia Performing Arts Complex. AMS Planning & Research Corp., the Connecticut-based consultants who developed the facilities plan, estimates the project will cost $70 million to $100 million. That's about $5 million for immediate renovations on the Landmark Theater to temporarily accommodate Carpenter Center users while that facility is expanded and renovated, and another $5 million in a second phase of renovations.

Another $40 million to $65 million will be needed to construct the Virginia Performing Arts Complex where the empty Thalhimer's building now stands. The complex is to include the improved Carpenter Center, as well as 600-seat and 250-seat theaters to be used primarily by TheatreVirginia. A new community arts center, incorporating the Empire Theatre, will cost $10 million in two $5 million stages.

The cost of renovations to the National Theatre has not been determined, because no one has figured out what the theater will be used for yet. (Some possibilities include small-scale concerts, film screenings or an overflow meeting center for the nearby convention center.)

An endowment of $10 million to $15 million, to help cover ongoing operating costs, rounds out the bill.

Where will this money come from? That's what a newly created foundation, the Capital Region Performing Arts Foundation, whose board is being led by banking and supermarket executive James E. Ukrop, is currently trying to figure out in a $40,000 feasibility study.

"We are taking the plan to the various constituencies to find out if there is the potential to raise the money to make the plan become a reality," Ukrop says. The foundation is looking to a variety of sources including national foundations, the federal government, the state, local corporations and individuals.

"We have to find out how willing the community is to support this," Ukrop says. "Local money has to step in before you can go to other sources." The study is due to be completed in about 60 days.

So far, $8.7 million has been raised for the complex, including $5.7 million raised by the Carpenter Center for renovations to its facility; $2 million from the city of Richmond for demolition of the Thalhimer's building; and $1 million from the state of Virginia. (The state was asked to give $5 million.)

"Our hope is that the state might give this [project] consideration," Ukrop says. "In other states [that have done this] the state has been a major player, providing one-half to a quarter of the funds." Ukrop cites similar projects in Dayton, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; Dallas and Columbus, Ga., that each received $24 million to $35 million from their state governments.

How realistic is it to expect that the Commonwealth of Virginia, which ranks 36th among the 50 states in funding for state arts commissions, will step up to the plate with big bucks?

"It depends on how much money is available," says Peggy Baggett, executive director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, which distributed $4.6 million in state money to arts organizations last year. But she sounds encouraging. "The state government has been very generous in the construction and renovation of arts facilities," she says. "… It has a record of giving significant amounts toward supporting capital projects."

The challenges don't stop there. In addition to raising the capital funds to build the complex, many of the nonprofit arts organizations will have to increase their budgets to move into the complex.

TheatreVirginia, which now has an operating budget of a little more than $2 million, will have to more than double its budget to $5 million a year by the time it moves. Graham Sellors, TVa's director of development, says the theater's board is already working to gradually increase its fund-raising goals each year until moving day. "Our fund-raising goals are increasing by a huge amount," he says. "We are definitely not looking at this through rose-colored glasses."

And what about the challenge of nonprofits such as TVa trying to raise additional money while the Capital Region Performing Arts Foundation is simultaneously trying to meet its $70 million to $100 million goal? Some arts organizations say they're concerned. But Ukrop says not to worry.

"Our [fund raising] will be a one-time effort that has a definite period," he says. "I have never seen it happen where the annual funds dry up or are reduced during a capital campaign. There's risk to everything — we never would make much progress if we didn't have risks attached to things."

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