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Point of No Return

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It's a simple question, really, fundamental to every business executive and entrepreneur considering a new venture: What is the return on investment? In the debate over the performing arts center, which City Council approved the funding for last week, the question has been avoided, dismissed, ridiculed even. "It was never going to make money, we always knew that" has been the consistent message from the business and political leaders who proposed and started the push for the arts center, in earnest more than nine years ago.

So there was never an attempt to make such a case to the public. In fact, the public was never asked to formally approve or disapprove the project, which some estimate will wind up costing the city upward of $50 million. One can argue that City Council members and Doug Wilder, elected with nearly 80 percent of the popular vote in 2004, are representing the public's desires seeing that this is, after all, a representative democracy. But years of infighting and instability have followed the now-approved arts center. It's never had broad public support. In fact, the project seemed destined to mark the end of the business community's de-facto city planning reign when Wilder took office in 2005.

Wilder, in no uncertain terms, promised to end the behind-closed-doors decision-making that led to the Greater Richmond Convention Center, 6th Street Marketplace, the Broad Street Community Development Authority and, at the time, the struggling performing arts center project. "To raise money for the arts center? That's not my priority," Wilder told Style in 2005. "[I'm] continuing with the theme I started when I was governor: The necessities before niceties."

In fact, Wilder was fond of saying the people elected him to close the chapter of Richmond Renaissance and self-appointed business leaders running the city: People wanted more attention focused on education, public safety, the little things that make the city a better place to do business. That was also the message during the city's recent weeklong series of downtown planning sessions, wherein the public was engaged to weigh in on Richmond's outdated "master plan." There was one consistent theme to emerge from the meetings: focus on the basics, better sidewalks, public safety and educational facilities. There was no outcry for an arts center.

Never has been. The last true survey done to gauge public support for infrastructure projects is nearly 10 years old. In 1998, the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University was hired by a consortium of local civic groups to survey and gauge public support for a variety projects that could improve the region: educational facilities, sports stadiums, transportation initiatives. The public would be asked, via referendum, to then approve a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for it all.

Most every cultural and civic group participated in the brainstorming sessions dubbed MAPS, which stood for Metropolitan Area Projects Strategies.

VCU's polling found 45 percent of those asked said they would support a tax hike for projects related to public safety, education and technology. But "arts-related" projects ranked near the bottom. Robert D. Holsworth, former director of the Center for Public Policy who is now dean of VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences, analyzed the data and found only "small pockets of support" for arts-focused initiatives.

Despite the research, the plan for a new performing arts center was the only initiative kept alive after the MAPS idea dissipated due to a fiercely anti-tax General Assembly.

Richmond Renaissance took the baton, and the arts center plan eventually grew into a massive $168 million Broad Street revitalization project. It would help the struggling convention center and breathe life into East Broad Street.

Wilder, who scuttled the $168 million version in 2005, did so because it was costing the city too much money. He appointed a committee of his own to present a scaled-down version, the current $58 million revitalization of the Carpenter Center on East Broad Street. But that proposal, it seems, will cost more than the original.

"The only thing that I'm clear about is this project is costing the taxpayers today more money that it cost when the project was first [introduced]. Give me the documentation that shows that because Wilder stopped this that we saved the taxpayers the money that he's alleged has been saved," posits City Councilman Bruce Tyler, who voted against funding the arts center project last week.

Tyler says he supports building the performing arts center, even at a cost to city taxpayers of $50 million, but says the annual city commitment of $500,000 to cover the center's operating costs should be shared by surrounding jurisdictions. Moreover, he says, the city can't afford to take on additional commitments without first weighing other priorities. The funding for the arts center will come from a hike in the meals tax, which also concerns Tyler.

"Go out and find me a performing arts center that makes money. I know that this isn't being done to make money. But you don't want to put it on the back of the taxpayers," Tyler says. "The problem is [the city is facing] a half a billion dollars' worth of projects that are going to have to be done. Fixing the roads, the sewer systems, the things that make a city work. … If we borrow $500 million, it's going to cost taxpayers a nickel on their real estate. We've got to make sure that we're not driving our middle class out of the city of Richmond, and the surest way to do it is to continue to raise taxes."

As for the economic justification, the impact studies and the pro formas, fellow City Councilman Chris Hilbert, who abstained from voting on the arts center project last week, says it would have made more sense to give taxpayers more time to weigh in. On Sept. 10, the majority of council and Mayor Wilder were unwilling to wait, even in the absence of key financial documents.

"I thought it was a disservice to the project not to engage the public," Hilbert says, adding that the original argument for the arts center was to revitalize Broad Street by putting the grand stage on the former Thalhimers site. "This project will not fulfill that goal."

A consultant working for CenterStage, the group that developed the new plan, recently informed City Council that an economic impact study estimates Richmond will see somewhere between $800,000 to $1.3 million a year in sales and meals taxes, parking fees and other arts-center-related purchases. The city estimates admissions taxes to come to about $400,000 a year.

Yet the documents that back up that assertion weren't part of the recent presentation to council. The only impact studies that have been released for public inspection date to 2001 and 2003, when the earlier version was in place. And those studies have been widely criticized, partly because they were based on usage of the arts center by the main tenants, the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Opera and Richmond Ballet, which had yet to make commitments to the project.

Both Tyler and Hilbert say they haven't seen any economic impact studies, or detailed financial pro formas for the arts center. Except for the earlier studies, neither has City Council President Bill Pantele, who is perhaps the project's biggest supporter on council. (Phone calls to CenterStage for updated economic data weren't returned.)

"There is a multifaceted approach," says Pantele, referring to the development of the arts center, the former Miller & Rhoads into a hotel and condos, the convention center, the new federal courthouse and the Broad Street CDA. "There's no one project that makes everything better. But five projects very well may."

Perhaps. But that case hasn't been made to the public, either. S



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