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When you wish upon a star

Kudos to the Schor administration for pushing the performing arts center dream to a reality

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The decades-long quest to build a performing arts center in downtown Lansing took an enticing step forward Tuesday with Mayor Andy Schor’s reveal of a thrilling but remarkably pragmatic blueprint for finally making the dream come true. The fruit of an intermittent effort to create a new downtown entertainment venue that dates back to the days of former Lansing Mayor David Hollister, the proposed venue will be called “The Ovation.” Schor’s plan is well deserving of one.

Of course, the announcement is music to the ears of the Greater Lansing arts community and to people of all stripes who are positively giddy at the prospect of seeing their favorite band in concert right here in Lansing, rather than having to drive to Grand Rapids or Detroit. The Ovation will put the Lansing region back on the map for a much broader slice of the national entertainment market while providing a welcoming venue for all manner of creative endeavors, from community theater to film festivals and art exhibitions.

The proposed location for the $12 million to $21 million facility, at the corner of Washington Avenue and Lenawee Street, gets at least four stars out of five for being right next door to the former Lake Trust Credit Union headquarters, which at this moment is fully engulfed in a top-to-bottom, $33 million makeover that will create 55 new apartments with 18,000 square feet of ground floor retail space, some of which is already leased to a fitness center. Immediately to the south, on the same block along Hillsdale Street, the developers are building 117 more apartments.

Add to the mix 145 units at the recently completed Metro Place apartments, just to the north on the old YMCA site, and you can begin to envision the residential density that the projects will create, and the raw energy that hundreds of new residents will bring to the downtown’s southern tier. It has long been understood that residential density is the synergistic key that unlocks other development doors -- retail and service businesses locate where the people are, not the other way around. Adding The Ovation to this symphony of economic development makes it a masterwork indeed. And, the concept of integrating 40 units of affordable living space for artists alongside the city’s Public Media Center and a performance venue capable of hosting 2,000 people is another stroke of genius.

Schor’s announcement couldn’t come at a better time. After absorbing near-fatal blows during the COVID-19 pandemic, downtown Lansing desperately needs a new vision to build and sustain its future in the absence of 1,000 Cooley Law students and without tens of thousands of state employees. The Ovation is a centerpiece of that emerging vision. It’s still a long way from here to a groundbreaking ceremony — like figuring out where to get another $10 million or so to achieve the most ambitious version of the plan — but we’re optimistic that city leaders and the project’s stakeholders will pound the doors of corporations and philanthropists across the region, asking them to step up and help write the next chapter in the history of downtown Lansing.

The proposed project isn’t as grandiose as some have envisioned through the years, but it’s unrealistic to expect that Lansing could raise enough capital to finance a $60 million or $70 million facility. And it’s never been the intent to replicate the Wharton Center at MSU. Instead, The Ovation aims to fill a gap in the region’s entertainment infrastructure by creating a venue capable of hosting a multitude of events that aren’t compatible with the scale and relatively mainstream programming focus of the Wharton Center.

If we had one wish to grant Schor and his team, it would be an amicable agreement with the owner of the downtown liquor store to move his business elsewhere. Located directly across the street from The Ovation’s front doors, we worry that the booze outlet will foster the perception that the area is unsafe and discourage newcomers from attending events and exploring downtown Lansing. We’re not a big fan of eminent domain, where the city takes the property by legal force and provides fair market compensation to the owner. We’d rather see a negotiated settlement, perhaps including a land swap for a new store location, that satisfies the needs of both parties.

In any case, we’re delighted to acknowledge those who played a part in this orchestra of accomplishment, from David Hollister, who believed all those years ago that a performing arts center was central to his vision of making Lansing a world-class city; to former Mayor Virg Bernero, who secured a critical long-term funding stream that will be a major component of the project financing; to Mayor Schor, his Arts & Culture Commission and the Arts Council of Greater Lansing; and especially Dominic Cochran, the director and creative force behind Lansing’s Public Media Center and the Capital City Film Festival, who, perhaps more than anyone else, held a vision and pushed methodically and relentlessly for more than a decade to keep the dream alive. To all those who shared and supported that dream along the way: Bravo!

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