If you’re having trouble keeping up with Durham’s plans for an events center/theater downtown, you’re not the only one.

After last Wednesday’s meeting at City Hall, it seemed as though the city had dropped the idea of building a large venue designed for national touring acts in favor of a venue that would be dedicated more explicitly to the American Dance Festival and other local performing arts groups. More than 40 citizens attended, the vast majority of whom voiced their objections to the 4,000-seat plan. As City Manager Marcia Conner answered their questions two hours into the meeting, she concluded with an about-face statement that drew applause from the crowd. “I was saying to Duncan [Webb, a consultant on the project], ‘Wow, you know, maybe the next step is to have a charette and start from scratch.’”

Project architect Phil Szostak rose at that point and delivered a surprise announcement: “One thing I can tell you is that the 4,000-seat design that was on the table is off the table.” Building a facility for ADF was his highest priority, he said, even if that means a 1,000-seat facility.

City officials didn’t directly address the loud complaints about hiring Clear Channel as operator and manager of the theater, except to assure the crowd that their objections were being taken seriously.

But reports of the theater’s demise may have been exaggerated. According to Alan DeLisle, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Employment Development, the city is now considering a 2,000-3,000 seat facility. Durham has $24 million at its disposal thanks to a legislated hotel-motel tax designated for the project. But with Duke University offering only $3 million in subsidy to make the stage suitable for ADF, that’s just nowhere near the $42 million called for by the big proposal. “I think it’s fair to say that we’re considering downsizing the facility, seeing if the economics work and if it’s a better fit for the community,” DeLisle said Tuesday.

But one controversial aspect of the plan hasn’t changed. “We’re still working through a discussion with Clear Channel right now as it relates to the facility,” DeLisle said. “If those discussions do not go well in the next couple of weeks, then it’s very possible that the city will look at other operators.”

Downtown Durham Inc. President Bill Kalkhof is a professional booster for economic development in the city’s center. He said the city should consider the 2,500-3,000 seat range and a cost of $25 to $30 million. “There is a very good possibility that all the money would be in hand,” Kalkhof said. “Then all you need to be concerned about is, would it pay for itself moving forward?”

As for Clear Channel’s role in the project, Kalkhof said he encourages the city to look for other operators, but he thinks they’ll ultimately decide to stay with the San Antonio-based conglomerate. “No one has convinced me yet that there’s anybody but Clear Channel who can make it operationally break even.”

Meanwhile, what does ADF have to say about all this? “All I know is what I’ve been reading,” ADF Director Charles Reinhart said Tuesday. “Nobody’s contacted me recently about any of it.”

ADF board chairman Carlton Midyette, who has been in more recent communication with the project’s planners, says ADF’s perspective hasn’t changed. “We think that a theater of 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 could accommodate our needs if it was done properly.” Midyette says the choice of operator is not a big concern for the festival. “I don’t think Clear Channel, from our point of view, guarantees success or failure. I think we’re able to work with whomever manages theater, as long as they want to accomplish what we want to accomplish.” He added that there are many operators in the country with specialized expertise in theater, some in music production. “If the city asked us about that, we’d be glad to make some recommendations.”

The large-scale venue downtown artists had objected to–“a big box for Yanni,” as one woman in the audience called it–hasn’t gone away. It’s just shrunk a little. City officials say they hope a smaller theater would address more of the needs of local performing arts groups. But the reality is, these two visions of a downtown theater are apples and oranges.

The city’s plans for a theater were never about providing a venue for locally produced shows, black box experimental productions or local musical acts. Such venues would be in the 100-300 or 400-600 seat range. The Durham Cultural Master Plan created last year cited a need for smaller performance spaces to accommodate those needs. Caleb Southern, a member of the Artists and Business Coalition of Downtown (ABCD), pointed out at the meeting that Manbites Dog Theater, located downtown near Durham Central Park, is open most nights of the year and was able to accommodate only 19 out of 50 production requests it received last year.

A pamphlet of frequently asked questions passed out at last week’s meeting touts a range of musical acts that would play at the city’s proposed events center, including Harry Connick Jr., Patti Labelle, Norah Jones, Sting, Moody Blues and Tony Bennett, as well as family-oriented productions such as Blue’s Clues.

New York-based economic consultant Duncan Webb underscored the point by saying of the theater proposal, “It’s not about local product, it’s about national product.”

That’s the problem artists have with the project, and it’s a problem that’s not going to go away.

A handful of regional companies could afford to rent and expect to fill such a space. A representative from the Durham Symphony came to the city meeting to point out that the group, which is currently in its 20th season, would be pleased to offer its “expertise” to the project, if it is built. Barbara Lau of the Center for Documentary Studies said the type of culture ADF hopes to draw to a better facility, such as the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and the touring opera and theater productions that have also been mentioned, “are produced by nonprofit theater, not for-profit theater.”

But that’s not what the city has in mind. “There are not a lot of performing arts centers across the county that don’t require some type of public subsidy,” DeLisle says. “The city is putting more than half a million dollars [annually] into the Carolina Theatre to make it work for the community. Its primary purpose is not to be financially successful. I don’t think the city believes that you can do another facility like that.” As city officials have emphasized over and over again, if Durham is going to build a new theater, it’s got to pay for itself.

In other words, this theater is designed to be an engine of economic development, not a venue for local culture.

But are theaters a good tool for economic development? Webb, the city’s consultant, thinks so. But Josh Parker, a consultant for Blue Devil Ventures and candidate for Durham County Board of Commissioners, disagrees.

“Theaters are loss leaders,” Parker said. “That’s why they require public subsidy.”

Even Clear Channel has suffered this summer from declining ticket sales, which led it to cancel Triangle dates for Britney Spears and scale back the tours of other artists it manages.

One of the biggest proponents of the project is Capitol Broadcasting, which owns the Durham Bulls, the newly renovated American Tobacco complex across from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and the proposed theater site. Michael Bacon, who lives downtown, said the city has already subsidized the ballpark and parking for American Tobacco, and that Capitol–which has an option on the theater site if the project isn’t built–should develop the site on its own.

Theater boosters say their project doesn’t take away from the thriving arts community. “This facility is not going to be the panacea for the arts community, and we’ve got to start to deal with that now,” DeLisle says. “I would agree, it wouldn’t make sense if it’s the only thing we’re doing, but we’re trying to do all of it. This is part of an overall attempt to revitalize downtown.”

Kalkhof says he’s committed to finding resources and financial incentives to repair the Carolina Theatre and Durham Arts Council, build new facilities if necessary, and help broker a deal for a rock club downtown. “I think we can do all of the above, and I think we can do all of it now.”

But artists say downtown is already experiencing a cultural renaissance, and they worry that the delicate environment of cheap rents and buildings available for creative use would be threatened by a venue that draws traffic to downtown while drawing ticket sales away from smaller venues. “Right now is a very delicate time downtown. We’re trying to form an identity,” said Jonathan Blackwell, a Duke graduate and member of the Durham Association of Downtown Arts (DADA).

“We could be known as the arts capital of the Southeast in 20 years,” Bacon says. “This is not the way to do it.”

Two deadlines loom: If the city council doesn’t make a clear commitment to move forward with the project by Oct. 10, Capitol Broadcasting can exercise its option on the land. And if the project doesn’t break ground by September 2005, the hotel-motel tax will cease to be collected, and the $2 to $3 million collected so far that hasn’t already been earmarked will go to the Durham Convention and Visitors’ Bureau to use for marketing. That’s not such a bad outcome, say the artists, who cited a lack of marketing resources as a major problem when interviewed for the Durham Cultural Master Plan.

Meanwhile, the next city-sponsored meeting in mid-August may answer more questions about the difference between Plan Venti and Plan Grande. EndBlock