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Battle-Worn, Arts Execs Mobilize

Up front, in a yellow tie, on the middle-school stage, Brad Armstrong shows his eight-minute promotional video for the planned Performing Arts Center downtown and uses a remote to click through the PowerPoint presentation from his laptop.

Armstrong, president and chief executive of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, shows how Pittsburgh had "massage parlors and sleazy bars," and Newark, N.J., "was torn by racial and economic strife" before building their respective arts centers. He talks about the "picture postcard" pride the Richmond-area residents will feel about theirs. He even acknowledges and addresses his six-figure salary.

This is the grassroots life of Armstrong and crew, as they make the rounds from district to district, one group to the next, attempting to drum up support and raise millions of dollars.

The foundation has missed a deadline to raise the $98 million necessary for the downtown arts center. But City Council granted it an extension to Dec. 31, 2006 — otherwise, no city money.

And earlier in the day, more good news. The foundation received a $500,000 pledge from Bank of America. Only $29.2 million left to raise to meet the new deadline. Is it here? Chief fund-raiser Judy Ford is in the back of the auditorium, passing out yellow "WOW" buttons in support of the center.

"I haven't heard much tonight in reference to safety," says one man, who worries about bringing his wife and daughter downtown.

Armstrong says he agrees with the premise: "If people are afraid to go down there, it won't succeed," he says. But things will get better with the center, he says. And besides, he's seen the crime statistics. Crime at the Boulders office complex is double what it is at Sixth and Grace streets, Armstrong points out.

"What's going on at the Boulders?" one man bellows from the back.

A woman wonders whether shuttle buses could take them into the city to see shows. Another wonders whether she'll be able to afford tickets. One recalls when the Coliseum was built and all the excitement it brought. Other people ask: Is the hotel deal finalized? (No.) Is there a guarantee construction jobs will stay local? (No.)

And what of this Times-Dispatch survey showing most people want a performing-arts center downtown? One man raises his hand to recount his phone call to T-D Managing Editor Louise Seals, and their discussion of statistically significant polling. The Richmond portion of the survey is not, he says.

"What if you build it, and they don't come?" asks one woman with a sweater draped over her shoulders.

"If we don't build it," Armstrong answers, "we sure know they won't come." — Jason Roop

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