The handful of people who have been plotting the course of a $30 million events center in downtown Durham came face to face last week with fundamental questions of why and whether the city needs such a venue. At a meeting of the events center advisory committee last Thursday, it appeared the project was losing momentum–and that crucial questions about the project’s purpose were finally on the table. The frankest of those questions came from an unexpected source: Carlton Midyette, who chairs the board of the American Dance Festival. While the project’s proponents have frequently cited ADF as the main purpose for building a theater, ADF’s representatives have been relatively quiet throughout the public debate and planning process. Midyette has met frequently with architect Phil Szostak but has rarely spoken at public meetings.

But as the two-hour meeting wrapped up, Midyette finally spoke up. “This process has failed,” he said. “Nobody wants to admit that, but it’s a little bit of the emperor has no clothes… . We’re all here at cross-purposes, and we’ve all glossed over that with Southern hospitality, but I’m worn out by it.”

He said the idea for a 4,000-seat theater (which was recently scaled back to 2,800 seats) didn’t come from ADF or from Durham’s performing arts community, but from a handful of “five or six people” hoping to bring the maximum amount of people to downtown Durham at night and on the weekend in order to stimulate economic growth.

Among the people most prominently supporting the theater are former City Manager Marcia Conner, Downtown Durham Inc. head Bill Kalkhof, and Capitol Broadcasting general counsel Mike Hill.

ADF is in a tight spot. Facilities at Duke University have long been inadequate for the internationally recognized festival, which requires a larger stage better suited to the performing arts, with offstage and rehearsal space. But while Duke plans to replace Page Auditorium eventually, that project appears to be low on its priority list. So hopes for a new home for ADF have been pinned on a downtown Durham theater.

Last month, Clear Channel Entertainment, the proposed operator of the venue, pulled out of negotiations with the city in a move that has cast doubt on the project’s future. If the events center currently being proposed isn’t built, there’s no telling how long ADF will have to wait for another location.

Yet ADF has not been the driving force behind the proposed theater, Midyette said, but rather a “thorn in the side” of the project, a condition tacked on to the plans that has created design problems and attached heavy strings to any offer the city makes to a potential operator. Midyette said that while he cares about and supports Durham’s cultural life as a whole, his job on the committee is simply to advocate for ADF. “We need a theater,” he said frankly. “Is there a better use of the tax than a theater? That question was supposed to have already been answered” before the committee was ever convened, he said.

Incorporating the dance festival into the plans has caused problems since the beginning, Midyette said. He praised Szostak’s hard and continued work on a flexible design that would accommodate ADF. But Midyette concluded that ADF’s needs had placed too many “strings” on the project from an operator’s perspective. “If it weren’t for ADF, this thing would probably be built by now,” he said.

The project’s opponents say the city never asked the right questions about what the city needs and what would best serve Durham’s cultural audiences, and that the current plan tries to combine a rock hall and a performing arts theater while compromising the quality of both. But with the hotel-motel tax already being collected for the purpose of building a new theater, proponents say this is an opportunity the city should take.

The departure of Clear Channel from the table isn’t the only change affecting the project, however. Former City Manager Marcia Conner was City Hall’s biggest proponent of a city-owned performance space. Even after the terms of her departure had been negotiated, Conner accompanied Mayor Bill Bell and other city officials to Houston to visit a comparable Clear Channel theater. But with Conner gone, Bell seems to have stepped back from the project.

Alan DeLisle, the city’s head of economic development, still backs the theater whole-heartedly. So does Szostak, who has worked continuously for more than a year, creating then changing plans for a downtown theater without receiving payment from the city or the development team he works with. Szostak says he has already received calls from two other operators. “I’m not going to stop,” Szostak said. “I’m very passionate about this project and about downtown redevelopment.”

But several people on the committee expressed concern that the project comes with too many strings attached: In its letter to DeLisle, Clear Channel said their decision was a result both of managerial changes that spelled a strategic shift for the company and a problem with the economic terms–namely, that the operator would take on all financial risks associate with running the theater, provide discounted rental rates for local performing arts groups, and reserve six weeks each summer for the American Dance Festival.

Connie Campanaro, executive director of Carolina Theatre Inc., the nonprofit that runs the Carolina Theatre, pointed out that Clear Channel is the largest concert venue operator in the country. “It should be cause for concern for everyone” that they backed out, she said. “If they’re going to stay in the concert business and not jump on this, you have to ask.” She also cautioned that “there are a lot of sleazy concert promoters out there,” and the city should be very careful about negotiations with other operators. Szostak asked if Carolina Theater Inc. could manage the proposed venue; “I don’t know yet,” she said. Meanwhile, Josh Parker, a member of the Arts & Business Coalition of Downtown, asked that the committee take the opportunity to step back and ask more fundamental questions about the project. He passed out a list of 16 such questions. Reyn Bowman, president of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau, spoke up against the project as well. He objects to the way hotel-motel tax money is being used and said the city is violating the spirit of legislative guidelines about the use of such tax. “If the city keeps blatantly ignoring taxpayers, there’s going to be hell to pay,” Bowman said. “If we weren’t defending ourselves or what we’re doing, what questions would we be asking?”

DeLisle said City Council member Dianne Catotti had asked him to pass on a similar question to the committee: Should we continue to move forward with the theater, or are there better options?

Those options might include building an altogether different venue on a different site, building more than one small venue, or asking the state legislature to amend the legislation that instituted the tax in order to allow the money to be used in a different way. If the legislation is not changed and ground is not broken on a theater in Durham by September 2005, the tax will cease to be collected and the $3 million already collected would go to Bowman’s organization.

The original purpose of the theater was to bring people downtown, explained Carolyn Titus, Durham County’s deputy manager, and Ted Conner of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. Back in 1999, informal conversations with national consultants brought to their attention that Durham had below average food and beverage sales compared to other parts of the Triangle. The consultants suggested that a destination point downtown would bring people in during evenings and weekends.

Scott Selig, Duke University’s associate vice president for capital assets, said he had not been aware that that was the genesis of the theater plan. “If we really want to draw people downtown,” Selig asked, “what are our options?”

DeLisle pointed to the theater feasibility study done by consultant Duncan Webb as a blueprint for the entertainment market downtown.

Insight on what Durham’s community leaders, arts groups and audiences have said about the city’s facility needs are included in the Durham Cultural Master Plan, which will be presented to the public on Sept. 13. It was created with some of the same hotel-motel tax that would fund the theater and has been accepted by the Board of County Commissioners. It is, in essence, a plan to make plans. While the document contains dozens of interviews, it offers principles and priorities rather than concrete goals. The plan will be implemented by a special steering committee.

DeLisle said the steering committee on the theater was a separate concern, but if discussion of the theater project encompasses the master plan, he would need direction from the City Council as to where that discussion should take place. “That’s a conversation that could take years,” he said. Furthermore, DeLisle said, “There are elements of the Durham Cultural Master Plan that are embedded in this project.”

As committee members began to leave for other commitments, Midyette spoke up with his candid observations. Questions about whether the proposed project is right for Durham are outside of his purview, he said. “We’re interested in a theater. We’re not interested in another committee, or the Durham Cultural Master Plan, or a history museum,” he said. “Our role is to advocate for a theater in which we can perform.” If the committee’s job is to facilitate the construction of a theater, he said its work is “constantly and persistently being undermined. You’ve got a dysfunctional family,” he said of the group, which includes Parker and Bowman, who oppose the theater project as it stands.

Midyette then told the story of the theater plan’s inception as he understands it: One group of Durhamites became interested in creating a cultural master plan for Durham to help the city prioritize and strengthen its cultural offerings and facilities. Meanwhile an entirely separate, smaller group of people began looking at ways to bring the maximum number of people downtown in the evenings and on the weekends. Independent of the cultural master plan effort, that small group decided that a theater would best accomplish their goal and sought legislation that would impose a hotel-motel tax without support from Durham’s hotel industry. At some point, money for the cultural master plan was incorporated into the legislation.

The idea for a theater initially came in 1998 as part of the proposed Terry Sanford Performing Arts Institute of North Carolina, which would have established a performing arts center in the Triangle that ADF could call home. Durham’s boosters worked hard to woo the Sanford center to Durham, but, the Sanford people chose a site in Raleigh. In the end, though, the project stalled when it was unable to raise enough money to proceed.

In Durham, however, the idea of a theater had caught hold. Kalkhof, of Downtown Durham Inc., contacted concert promotion company SFX (later bought by Clear Channel) to get the ball rolling. Only after the legislation had been passed in 2001 did ADF again become part of the plan, Midyette said, at the urging of Durham City Council members “who thought ADF was worth advocating for.”

“We are left as a committee with an idea that started as a duck and has turned into a chicken,” Midyette said. He added that the juxtaposition of Clear Channel and ADF never made sense. “Our preferences would be for completely different designs and facilities.” That created “an almost insoluble problem that Phil [Szostak] has tried professionally to solve.”

“My only objective is a theater,” Midyette concluded. “That may not be what Durham needs to spend its money on, but that’s my only objective.”