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This is where it starts to get real. A national consultant met with Lansing’s art community last week to explore the long-cherished dream of a downtown performing arts center.
But before the arts banquet can begin, the city will spend much of 2019 munching a salad of spreadsheets, statistics and financial models.
Michelle Walter of Connecticut-based AMS Planning & Research was pleased with the enthusiastic turnout at a kickoff meeting Wednesday with the facilities and infrastructure committee of Mayor Andy Schor’s Arts Commission. The committee recommended Walter’s firm, which the city hired under a $105,000 contract paid for by a mix of public and private funds.
Walter met with Schor, city leaders and members of the arts community, collectively and one on one, to start the arduous process of determining what shape the facility could take.
“It bodes very well for any possible project, when, in the very first visit to a town, you meet with the mayor, the head of the chamber, the downtown association, arts council, everyone,” Walter said. “Everybody is pulling for this, and that’s impressive.”
Walter hopes to come back to Lansing with a “situation analysis” in six to eight weeks.
Her team will assess the Lansing market, research the demographics and competitive environment, and measure “actual market footprint” of arts and entertainment in the area.
“The activity drives the numbers,” Walter said.
To fill out the picture, Walter’s team will roll out a broad-based online community survey in the next few weeks.
The analysis will likely conclude, not with a single recommended solution, but “a couple directions we might go in, based on what we’ve learned and what makes sense,” Walter said.
Only then will Walter’s team will look outside of Lansing to identify comparable markets and venues.
An “operational model” is planned to take form by September.
Meanwhile, Schor said unnamed developers have already approached him about the project and are waiting to learn what the community wants.
The mayor has made it clear that a downtown arts center, a project that has eluded his predecessors for decades, is a high priority.
“We think it’s hugely important,” Schor told the Rotary of Lansing last month, when he filled in for his ill wife, Erin Schor, who chairs the Arts Commission. “We’ve got two or three really good prospects we’re working with right now.”
AMS has worked with hundreds of cities, performing arts centers, arts groups and non-profits, including the Wharton Center and the Detroit Symphony.
Today’s performing arts centers, Walter said, are “anchor institutions” for many communities, but they are also moving toward a flexible model with little or no down time.
“You get plazas, and yoga, farmers markets, all kinds of uses,” she said.
Near the top of the list of potential users is the Lansing Symphony Orchestra.
The symphony’s executive director, Courtney Millbrook, said most orchestras aim for a hall with a capacity between 1,200 and 1,500 seats.
“Wharton is fantastic but it’s a very large hall,” Millbrook said. (The seating capacity of the Cobb Great Hall is 2,400.)
The target number lines up with a significant gap Walter pointed out at Wednesday’s meeting. There are no facilities in the area that fit the sweet spot between 600 and 2,000 seats.
“I just think about how much more accessible we would be to our community,” Millbrook said.
“People could ride bikes, walk, come after school — things that aren’t possible now.” The orchestra could rehearse in the same space where it performs and branch into different kinds of concerts with groups of various sizes.
“There’s so much potential for collaboration, things we haven’t thought about,” she said. “We’ve just begun to imagine what it could do.”
Lansing’s music promoters have long lamented the lack of mid-sized venues for rock, pop, jazz and folk acts on the well-traveled circuit between Detroit and Chicago.
Schor said “modular seating that would roll under the stage to transition from a symphony to a rock concert has been discussed.”
It remains to be seen how, of if, the needs of an amplified venue and an acoustic venue for the orchestra can be reconciled.
Even if box office from touring artists is factored in, Walter said the center will likely not be a money maker.
“We were not engaged to assess the market for a commercial club,” Walter said. “If there is more touring activity that is skipping Lansing, and there’s more demand for it, great.”
Walter said that performing arts centers “that service a diversity of activities, not all of which make money at the gate, almost always require some degree of subsidy, whether it’s philanthropy, dedicated tax revenue, some form of public sector support.”
Millbrook agreed, predicting that the center would require the biggest capital campaign the city has seen in a “long, long time.”
“All the corporations and individuals would have to really stretch and it’s important to be really honest about that up front,” she said.
Early estimates have ranged from $30 million to $100 million, depending on whether a parking structure is factored in. Schor pegged it at $20 million to $40 million at Wednesday’s meeting.
At the same meeting, Julie Pingston, vice president and COO of the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau, pushed for a multi-use facility flexible enough to accommodate conventions, meetings and special events, “not just for scheduled performing arts.”
Pingston and others called for convenient parking, anticipating that people will drive downtown from communities surrounding Lansing.
Nearly all parties involved said they wanted the facility to have as little down time as possible.
“We talked about something that really had a lot of programming, that had that synergy and connectivity with the community,” Pingston said.
Lansing has been here before.
Pingston’s office, in the Stadium District, sits on a site considered in the 1990s under mayor David Hollister.
But Pinsgston noted a sea change in Lansing’s cultural landscape change in recent years.
“There are more voices in the community that are potential users,” Pingston said. “Twenty years ago, the Capital City Film Fest didn’t exist.”
Walter was impressed, not just by the broad-based interest shown at Wednesday’s meeting, but also by a cresting wave of downtown projects and renovations.
“Anecdotally, we’ve heard that there is a renewal going on downtown — baseball, soccer, more residential, new hotels,” she said. “The economy is diversifying. Those are all extremely positive indicators.”
She told the group that cultural anchors like a performing arts center can bring “crucial and measurable benefits to local children, families and communities.”
Sometimes the benefits are intangible but no less real.
“It’s not just feelgood. It’s the fabric of your community,” Schor said.
A case in point is the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando.
The day after the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, only two years after the center was built, thousands of people gravitated there to keep vigil and create makeshift memorials.
“Over the last five or 10 years, there’s an increasing recognition of what an arts and culture anchor can do for the community,” Millbrook said. “There’s more data and knowledge and experience around that.”
But Millbrook also invoked the familiar adage, “be careful what you wish for.”
“Say it gets done. Then it’s ‘oh my goodness, then what?’” Millbrook said. “We are going to have to pay the bills. We are going to have to program it. That’s whey it’s so important to have an honest conversation now.”