Set aside for a moment the question of whether a $42 million, 4,000-seat theater is what downtown Durham needs now. Other questions about the proposed American Center for the Performing Arts remain: Why is Durham considering only one proposal? Why is Clear Channel the only operator in the running? And would this theater provide the American Dance Festival with the home it needs?

The ADF launched its 71st season this month under a cloud of uncertainty. The cramped Page Auditorium, with its inadequate stage, will have to serve at least another year for the world-renowned dance festival, even though that means some dance troupes cannot or will not perform there. With Duke University’s leadership changing, ADF is holding its breath to see where it will rank in the long list of university priorities under incoming president Richard Broadhead.

For many people in the downtown arts community, the proposed theater is a tough sell. On June 1, architect Philip Szostak, who has been working on the project from the beginning, presented architectural sketches and a Power Point summary of the economic plan for the theater to a public meeting at the Durham Arts Council. The rationale for building the theater, he told the crowd, was that ADF needs a home and Durham needs ADF. “It’s a project I’m very committed to,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m very committed to ADF and to downtown revitalization.”

The theater project was initiated about five years ago by SFX, a concert promoter later acquired by Clear Channel. Its executives approached Szostak, and he’s been working with them as part of the development team. “I stayed with the people who brought me to the dance,” he says, “both out of loyalty and because of their desire to do the project. They already had a presence in the Triangle market. They were fully accepted by the city.”

Clear Channel invited city council members, Mayor Bill Bell and City Manager Marcia Conner to visit their theaters in other cities such as Hartford and Phoenix. In suburban Chicago, city officials toured the Rosemont Theater, a 4,400-seat venue that hosts mostly touring musical acts.

What Durham officials didn’t see on that trip to Chicago was another theater that could have demonstrated an alternate model for Durham–a theater owned and run by a company that tried to put in a competing bid for the Durham project, but were told they could not.

Theatre Dreams bought the historic 3,600-seat downtown Chicago Theatre from the city in 2003. The for-profit theatrical production and management company produces a mix of Broadway shows, children’s theater, music events, dance and local arts events there throughout the year.

At the suggestion of ADF Director Charles Reinhart, Theatre Dreams president Lawrence Wilker says he approached the City of Durham more than a year ago about the project, but his company was not allowed to make a bid. “We tried very hard,” Wilker says. “We had heard that the city was interested in building a new theater, and we wrote to the city and called them to see if we could submit a proposal. We were told it was not possible.”

Requests for Proposals (or RFPs) were sent to only two companies: Clear Channel Entertainment and the Phoenix-based Future Cities.

In the initial design stages, Szostak went to see Reinhart in New York to discuss ADF’s needs, mainly larger backstage and sidestage space, and rehearsal space within the complex. Though ADF anticipates it would need fewer than 2,000 seats for its performances, the proposal calls for a 4,000-seat theater, to accommodate Clear Channel.

Reinhart says he hasn’t talked to Szostak in more than a year, and he’s been out of the loop. “We’ve been concentrating so hard on getting our season open that nothing else has been allowed to creep in,” Reinhart said last week.

The local contact for ADF has been board chairman Carlton Midyette, who has met with Szostak, the council subcommittee and the development team several times over the past year. He says that while local Clear Channel contacts are approachable, the controversy over the company as a whole is something the festival takes seriously. “They are either a very successful, vertically integrated business model or they’re a predatory monopoly. Or they’re somewhere in between.”

Asked how a partnership between ADF and Clear Channel would work, Midyette says he’s not sure. “They’re a dominant force. They could be a domineering force.” Yet those concerns are not sufficient reasons to scrap the theater plans, he says. “The theater only works if there are people in it lots of nights a year,” Midyette says. “If there’s someone else who can put that many nights a year in the theater to pay the freight, [the city] ought to interview them.”

“ADF’s needs I don’t think are extraordinary,” Midyette continues. “There may be other operators out there that I don’t know about. If there are, let’s see them.”

If the theater project is scrapped, money raised by the hotel occupancy tax will be diverted to the Durham Convention and Visitors’ Bureau–it cannot be used to fund repairs to the Carolina Theatre or other arts projects. Szostak, who says he has not been paid for his work on the project over the past two years, would not be compensated by the city. Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting, who is backing the theater, would have an option on the property.

And ADF would continue to perform in Page Auditorium for the foreseeable future, waiting to see if Duke’s long-term plans to build a theater on Central Campus happen sooner rather than later. “We don’t have a backup plan,” Midyette says.

Upcoming meetings on the Durham theater project

  • Arts & Business Coalition of Downtown meeting, Tues., June 29, 7 p.m., Durham Arts Council

  • City of Durham meeting, Wed., July 14, 6-8 p.m., City Hall