Arts Commission accepts performing arts center plan

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A national consulting firm pegged the cost of Lansing’s hoped-for civic performing arts center Monday at $45 million to $60 million and reported that it would likely operate at a yearly shortfall of $640,000, while generating millions of dollars in economic impact and bringing about 150,000 people downtown each year.

After a year of market research, public surveys and meetings, Michelle Walter of Connecticut-based AMS Planning & Research gave her team’s final recommendations to Mayor Andy Schor’s Arts Commission Monday.

The commission voted without dissent to accept the report and pass it on to the mayor for further action.

The center at a downtown location yet to be determined, would cost about $60 million as a standalone building, or closer to $45 million if it is part of a larger private development with shared costs.

Walter called the estimates “very conservative.”

“No crystal chandeliers here,” she said. “We say with confidence that it can be done.”

The plan calls for a 1,400-seat music hall (or 1,800 standing), a 200-seat “performing lab,” studio and classroom space for the Lansing Public Media Center and a relocated Lansing Art Gallery.

The Lansing Symphony Orchestra and the Capital City Film Festival, adding year-round programming, would share the facility with nationally touring pop acts and dozens of other theaters, dance troupes, nonprofits and private users.

New spaces for Lansing’s public media center and a relocated Lansing Art Gallery are also a part of the building’s “program,” or proposed mix of uses and space requirements, developed by Bob Campbell of Fisher Dachs, a national planning and design firm.

Much of the facility’s cost would go to state-of-the-art tech capable of toggling acoustics and seating back and forth from orchestral to pop and rock requirements, in the flexible strategy adopted by many other 21st century performing arts centers across the nation.

Walter said market surveys found “overwhelming” support (about 80 percent) for a new performing arts venue among Lansing area respondents and a strong response (about two thirds) saying current performance and entertainment options are lacking.

She said several music promoters were “quite bullish” about Lansing’s market potential as a mid-sized concert venue for country music, alternative rock, cover bands and other touring acts like The Black Crowes, Ben Folds, DMX, Elvis Costello and others.

“They think it’s a really fertile market, and there’s product that doesn’t play in the region that could play here,“ she said.

Dominic Cochran, the media center’s director and co-director of the Capital City Film Festival, said Walter’s research confirmed what he’s heard “anecdotally” for years.

“Everybody talks about all these people who drive out of the city to go to St. Andrews Hall in Detroit or the Intersection in Grand Rapids,” Cochran said. “It would be nice if they would spend their money here.”

The mid-sized venue also hits the Lansing’ Symphony’s “sweet spot” of 1,200 to 1,400 seats. The symphony has long considered a move downtown because as its current home, the Wharton Center, gets busier and busier, rental rates get higher and fewer or less desirable dates become available for rehearsals and performances.

After surveying dozens of potential users and outside promoters, Walter said the new facility would be “very highly used.” The larger venue would be busy 250 nights a year and the smaller venue 300 nights.

Even so, she said, the center would likely run at a gap between revenues and expenses of about $640,000 a year.

“There’s no agreed-upon model of where this money is going to come from,” Walter said, referring to both the cost of building the center and operating it. “We know it’s a public-private partnership, but how and what, we don’t know.”

Erin Schor, chairwoman of the Arts Commission, said financial feasibility studies are underway.

Schor said several fundraising scenarios are possible. “In an ideal world, we go out and we raise so much money because the public is so excited about this, that not only do we build it, but we have an endowment ready to cover the operating gap as well,” she said.

But in a less-than-ideal world, Schor said, “all options are on the table.”

“There’s a scenario where the taxpayers are on the hook for it,” she said. “There’s a scenario where we talk to the county about options for sharing the cost.”

In the meantime, Walter said, the city will need to line up a flotilla of ducks in a short period.

“Once someone pushes the ‘go’ button, a lot of things need to happen fairly quickly,” Walter said.

Walter said the LSO, the public media center and the Lansing Art Gallery all need to come up with concrete future plans. The gallery has been included at a $4.5 million capital cost but could be cut out if the gallery cannot find the funds to pay for its inclusion. That would lower the cost by $4.5 million.

She also made a “strong recommendation” that the project be guided by a “kitchen cabinet” of key players, with as few members as possible.

“You want the most powerful brains in the room because it’s really important to get it right,” Walter said. “Your team grows really quickly — architects, engineers, acousticians, theater people, land use people.”

She recommended site visits to other performing arts centers comparable to the one proposed for Lansing, such as ParisTown Hall in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lansing mayors starting with David Hollister in the 1990s have touted a performing arts center as a potential catalyst for further economic activity and a way to retain and attract younger residents.

Walter’s team gave the committee a detailed picture of the economic impact the new facility would have. About $22 million of the total construction cost would be spent locally, creating 281 local construction jobs for the duration of the project. Taking into account the economic ripple effect, the impact would top $39 million. She estimated that the facility would generate about $5 million of economic impact annually.

Walter also talked about the center’s intangible benefits. She said that when she first came to Lansing last winter, Michigan’s capital reminded her of her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, 10 years ago.

“After $100 million of investment in performance venues, Richmond is booming,” she said. Richmond’s CenterStage is a five-venue complex that includes an 1,800 seat theater and a 200-seat playhouse, a jazz space and an art gallery, set in a historic department store and a Leow’s movie palace. “Cranes everywhere, young people everywhere,” Walter said. ‘It can be quite an anchor for community revitalization.”

LAWRENCE COSENTINO

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