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Part 2

A Complex Plan


3. Marketing
Marketing the Virginia Performing Arts Complex to audiences will be one of its biggest challenges. "As the consultants kept telling us, this is not just about bricks and mortar," The Arts Council's Micas says. "This is about marketing." What has yet to be determined, however, is a specific marketing plan.

"There are two levels of marketing I think will be critical in the future," says Joel Katz, executive director of the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts. "[One is] marketing this area as a pleasant excursion from suburbia. A lot of people who work in suburbia and live in suburbia, say they have no reason to come downtown. … Then we have to do a better job of marketing individual programs."

In addition, Katz says, Richmond's facilities will have to do a better job of marketing themselves to the entertainment world. "In a community like Richmond, a lot of entertainment passes us by," he says. "We have to be marketing Richmond to the entertainment world as a viable stop."

The AMS survey recommends a collaborative marketing effort among arts organizations, Micas says. "That doesn't mean that we recommend [that] the marketing departments of each organization disappear," she adds, "but to get a marketing person to help everyone market together."

The first hurdle will be convincing folks to go downtown.

Kathy Panoff, director of University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts, knows this can be tough. Each year, her performance series holds two of its larger events at the Carpenter Center so it can accommodate larger audiences. "When we have our two events downtown, my subscribers whine," she says. "They like the convenience of driving up River Road [in the West End], turning left and parking."

TheatreVirginia, currently at the Virginia Museum in a residential neighborhood with plenty of parking, will especially have to sell the new site to its subscribers.

"The truth is, the downtown area is not very inviting right now," TVa Artistic Director George Black concedes. "But the downtown that we are talking about is not the downtown that people know now. You can't say, 'I don't like to go downtown now,' because it is not the same downtown."

The Virginia Performing Arts Complex needs to do more than just sell itself to Richmonders. "We need to begin to define our market as Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Williamsburg and the Tidewater area," Micas says.

Currently, about 250,000 people attend the major performing arts events in Richmond each year. The AMS survey says that audiences could reach a potential of 450,000 by 2007.

And marketing efforts must go beyond getting people into the seats of the new performing arts facilities. "Marketing [needs to be done] not just to come to us at these polished facilities, but to get people downtown," says Theatre IV's Whiteway. "Where do I park? Is it safe? Is it fun? Is there a place to eat? You have to address all of these things."

4. Programming
It's going to take more than the existing level of programming to sustain the new Virginia Performing Arts Complex. Bigger and more diverse acts are crucial to its success. The AMS report recommends the formation of an "at-risk presenter," an organization that would take a financial risk to bring in productions from outside of Richmond. The report also suggests that the Alliance for the Performing Arts form a programming committee to evaluate current arts programming, figure out where the holes are and how the group needs to fill them in, Micas says.

This fall, the Carpenter Center, which currently sponsors a smattering of programs throughout the year, will try out a small but ambitiously multicultural series, including performances by the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, Ballet Folklorico of Mexico, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ladymsith Black Mambazo, a troupe of Peking acrobats and the Canadian Brass.

The city's response to this series could be a good indicator of what the market can support. Notably, the Carpenter Center's planned series is similar to what is already presented at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center series, which consistently sells out its shows — albeit in a smaller theater in the suburbs, for a relatively low, university-subsidized ticket price.

"This is an opportunity to diversify in a mainstream way what the performing arts have traditionally offered here in Richmond," says the Elegba Folklore Society's Bell. "The complex will be in the center of the city, and of course, there is a major African-American population here. This offers the opportunity to develop audiences not only for the Elegba Folklore Society's performance company, but also for the ballet or for the symphony."

The Carpenter Center's Katz says building bigger and better facilities also will help with programming. "It means our tenants are going to be able to do more in more comfortable quarters," he says. "We now have dressing room space for 39 performers — no star dressing rooms, no conductors' dressing rooms, no private bathrooms or showers. We have a stage house half the size it should be. We have shows in here all the time that have to be cut because [they don't] fit on the stage — or they don't come here at all."

For TheatreVirginia, which just named Benny Sato Ambush as its new, artistic director, a new facility opens up the possibility for its production schedule to go from five or six productions a year to 10, something that is not possible in the site it currently leases from the Virginia Museum.

(photo illustration by Jeffrey Bland / Style Weekly)"We couldn't increase our programming because the museum needs the space," says departing Artistic Director Black. "This [new theater] will also mean there's a lot more flexibility in our scheduling, in being able to hold something over [if it is successful]."

In addition, the 250-seat black-box theater that will be built under the plan will allow TVa to present more cutting-edge work — work that Sato, who comes to Richmond from California — is known for. "We have been limited," Black admits. "In a theater like this [at the Virginia Museum], which is pretty formal and has sophisticated surroundings, there are certain things you can't do. Having two theaters opens up the possibilities enormously … in being able to attract people who don't care for the kind of fare we do now. It doesn't just double our possibilities, it geometrically increases the possibilities."

5. Other amenities
All this sounds great so far. But a number of logistical hurdles remain. Where will all of these theatergoers park? Where will they eat dinner before a concert? Where will they have a drink afterward? What will get people to come to this part of downtown during the week when nothing is going on?

"We have major recommendations about shopping and restaurants in this area. That is what Richmond Renaissance and the city of Richmond have to worry about," says John Woodward, the city's director of economic development. "This is more than just a performing-arts facility, it is about economic development and how an arts facility fits into the revitalization of downtown."

East Grace Street, with its blocks of vacant Art Deco storefronts, is ripe for retail and restaurant development. Broad Street offers many possibilities as well. Woodward says he will be marketing these areas in a few weeks when he attends the International Council of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas, the largest retail trade show in the country. "Part of the selling point will be this performing-arts complex," he says.

Parking, Woodward says, is not just a problem for the proposed performing arts complex. It's an issue with the canal development and convention center, too. "We're exploring different strategies to address parking downtown in general," he says. "It's … a big flashing blip on our radar screen."

He says the city is looking at creative ways to finance future parking construction. They're still seeking solutions, but don't expect to see a monolithic, block-long parking garage — at least not one without a first-story retail presence. Nor are we likely to see a new underground parking garage downtown — building one is just too expensive.

Jack Berry, chairman of Richmond Renaissance, says the performing-arts complex is just one component of the formula to successfully redevelop downtown. "Our objective is to revitalize the entire area to include a performing-arts complex, a new hotel as well as retail and restaurant opportunities," he says. "We're talking about the heart of downtown Richmond, not a fringe area. It is the most depressed area of downtown. Look all around it: The river front area is improving, Shockoe Bottom and Shockoe Slip are solid … the core of downtown, which is the two department store blocks at Sixth and Broad is horribly decayed. That's why this is so important.

"… The new convention center will not be successful unless the area around it is redeveloped. Convention-goers will walk out of the front door and vow never to return unless Broad Street is revitalized. Likewise, the performing arts center will not be successful unless the immediate environment is enhanced. It all fits together."

True. Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle.

6. Momentum
If there's a buzzword surrounding the Virginia Performing Arts Complex, it is this: What makes this plan different, its promoters insist, is momentum. The momentum of having simultaneous downtown development initiatives going at once — the convention-center expansion, the performing-arts complex, the Canal Walk. Rather than diluting efforts, economic-development experts say this critical mass strengthens them.

"I'm convinced that they're all going to happen," Berry of Richmond Renaissance says of the many plans for downtown. "I think we've achieved incredible momentum that is going to make these projects happen. People are attracted to large visions, not small plans. What we have here is a very large vision. I believe it has captured the imagination of the community."

"What I love is the serendipity of the city having a huge economic development need and the arts groups having a facilities need," adds the foundation's Armstrong. "I feel a sense of momentum now with this thing that is palpable."

Woodward, the city economic-development director, says the fact that $8.7 million has already been raised for the project, including a commitment of $2 million from the city, gives this project a "tangible momentum" that other proposed projects have lacked.

"Heretofore, we've been talking about thinking and talking about possibilities and projects, and here you've actually got cold hard dollars that have been put forth to help this move forward," Woodward says. "That alone is a difference from the past 10 years since the Thalhimers building has been closed.

"From an economic-development perspective, momentum builds on momentum. Because we have unprecedented varied development occurring it is certainly favorable for the timing of this project as well."

And timing is everything, many sources close to the project say. It's now — or never.

"Five to 10 years ago I wouldn't be as optimistic as I am today," Ukrop says. "But I think there are forces at work here — people are starting to look at downtown not only as a place to work, but to live. Ten years ago people would have thought that was crazy. All of a sudden there's this new energy. Downtown is becoming a neighborhood again. Ten years ago I don't know that what we are talking about doing would have worked. It would have been like creating an oasis in the desert. … Five to 10 years from now people won't recognize downtown, there's going to be so much activity going on."

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