Once again, the jewel of the Triangle’s arts and culture scene, the nation’s preeminent modern dance festival, will convene in cramped quarters on Duke’s campus. Meanwhile, plans are coming together for a huge performing arts theater in downtown Durham that boosters have said will be the promised land for ADF, though the dance festival’s relocation to downtown Durham is not a done deal.
The Durham Performing Arts Center, a 90-foot high, 2,800-seat theater next to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, isn’t scheduled to open until spring 2008, and even that timeline might be unrealistic. It’s a huge project that has been quietly coming together for the past year. Plans include a glass-enclosed lobby with a brick and pre-cast concrete exterior to blend in with neighboring tobacco warehouses. At last estimate, the budget for the project was $32.5 million, though construction costs have risen post-Katrina; a new budget estimate is expected this week. Money from a hotel-motel tax would pay most of the bill for the venue, which would be city-owned and privately operated.
On June 14, the city’s Office of Economic and Employment Development will bring its comprehensive set of plans to a city council subcommittee, then seek approval from the full council the following week. Questions loom about whether the project can stay on schedule. Unless the council successfully petitions for an extension from the state legislature, construction must begin by September or else the tax revenue will be lost. That hard deadline might be tough to meet, given the extremely complicated negotiations among all parties involving everything from programming agreements to contaminated ground water cleanup.
Controversy swirled around the theater in 2004, when initial plans included a 4,000-seat facility to be run by Clear Channel. Uproar from the local arts and music communities focused on a distrust in the San Antonio-based media conglomerate, which currently operates several local venues including the Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek, but has scaled back its concert business in recent years. Critics opposed the size of the venue, and they feared the amount of financial risk the city would take in building it, as well as a lack of access for local acts and the possible impact on the nearby Carolina Theatre, which is also owned by the city. A rarely spoken question lingered: What does a project of this size, oriented toward touring Broadway musicals and rock shows, have to do with ADF?
Public input and revised plans from architect Phil Szostak produced a somewhat different project in the fall of 2004: a 2,800-seat mainstage that included two balconies (which ideally go dark and unnoticed during smaller productions), with a smaller black-box style venue oriented toward ADF, which the dance festival itself would raise money for. But the black box space is now out of the picture, according to Szostak, as fundraising efforts never gained traction. Small performance spaces are called for under the Durham Cultural Master Plan, but the city has no plans to build them at this time.
Since the last public meeting in February, the city and development partners have been working to offset construction cost increases in order to keep the taxpayer-funded project on budget. Negotiations for naming rights are still in progress but are near agreement, Szostak says.
ADF, meanwhile, is still working out its seven-week summer lease with the theater’s joint operators, New York-based Nederlander and Providence, R.I.-based Professional Facilities Management. ADF Director Charles Reinhart and Nederlander representatives were unavailable for comment on the status of those conversations. Suffice it to say, for now, that while momentum for the theater continues to grow, ADF’s role in the project is unclear.