As the American Dance Festival returns to its cramped, though welcoming, home at Duke University, the city of Durham is making plans to build it a new home. Meanwhile, the city’s arts community is reeling over budget cuts and left with many unanswered questions about what a new theater would mean for local performers.

A 2,800-seat performing arts theater, which would be a permanent home to the ADF, is slated to be built downtown, adjacent to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the American Tobacco Project. The new space would offer what Duke lacks: a big stage with lots of room in the wings, custom-designed for dance. The American Center for the Performing Arts will cost $31 million to build, according to the latest estimates. All 22 shows and 16 rehearsals in the ADF’s summer season would take place there. Professional Facilities Management and Nederlander Productions would be hired operators, booking Broadway shows, touring music acts and kid-oriented performers the rest of the year.

Meanwhile, as the world’s finest dancers arrive at Duke’s campus this week, Durham’s year-round resident artists are facing hard times. City funding for many noprofit agencies has been slashed, wounding everything from children’s services, AIDS services, affordable housing and senior citizens, to more than a dozen arts groups. After emails and calls poured in, City Manager Patrick Baker announced Monday that he has juggled funds to free up $111,500 to distribute to 10 groups that had seen their funding cut, in some cases to zero.

Durham officials are quick to point out that the nonprofit budget and the theater budget are separate pots of money: Money for the new theater will come from a one-percent rise in the hotel-motel tax legislated by the state back in 2001. Duke has pledged $5.5 million, and project boosters expect private donors to kick in as well; $3 million buys the naming rights. Even if it wanted to, the city could not use that money on anything but a new theater–that’s the law.

But those separate pots illustrate the root problem, the theater’s critics say. The fundamental needs of the city’s existing arts groups never entered into the minds of city representatives as they dreamed up a new venue and approached the state legislature to make it happen. Now the survival of those groups is in jeopardy, as they will have to compete for the funding, audiences and attention of the public.

Chuck Davis joined nearly 100 people at Monday night’s city council meeting to plea for an increase in nonprofit funding. The African American Dance Ensemble he has led in Durham for 21 years would have received less than one third of what it received from the city last year, had Baker not stepped in. Davis recently returned from directing a dance festival that performed to sold-out crowds at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Durham does not support its local folks,” he says. The biggest challenge is getting audiences to come out, and he doubts that a new theater will be able to survive in the current climate. “Is Durham willing to get out and support this theater, whether it belongs to ADF or whomever? I’m just wondering, is there enough support to make this theater worth it?”

Davis has other questions that are shared by many in the city’s arts community: Will the new theater be available for lease by local groups at a discounted rate? Would the city invest revenue from the theater into funding its own artists? What kind of impact would it have on the city’s existing venues?

Some questions have been addressed in a plan that the city council subcommittee is crafting for final consideration this month: PFM and Nederlander would be hired by the city for a 10-year period with two successive five-year extensions. They would guarantee 100 shows per year in addition to the ADF in exchange for a management fee of $125,000 the first year, with an automatic annual increase. The city will take on no operating risk, but will get 40 percent of the earnings after the operator recoups expenses. Groups that wish to rent the theater will be charged $2,800 per performance day. Tickets will cost between $6 and $60, depending on the show, and both the city and the operator will get $1 from each ticket; the city will sock that money away to pay for maintenance and repairs. ADF plans to raise its own money to pay for an adjacent 500-seat black box theater that would house smaller performances and also be available for rental, in addition to a rehearsal space, office and dance museum.

So, to answer those questions from the arts community: No. No. And we don’t know.

Two conflicting studies were released recently, one from the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, the other from Hunter Interests, a private real estate consultant hired by the city’s Office of Economic and Employment Development. They offer contradictory predictions of hotel visits, revenue figures and even revenue sources–who’s going to come to this theater, Durham residents or tourists? A draft of the DCVB study was released a month ago with lower revenue figures and a harsher impact on existing facilities and businesses. Then the city decided to have Hunter Interests take a second look at the data. “They emailed me saying they were going to have a consultant adjust the figures,” says Reyn Bowman, DCVB president.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is what effect this will have on the Carolina Theatre, the historic downtown landmark that Durham spent $7.8 million to renovate. When the nonprofit budget list was released, the Carolina Theatre’s annual management fee of roughly half a million dollars appeared on it. But the Carolina does not apply for city grants–its arrangement with the city is much like that proposed for the American Center for the Performing Arts. The Carolina Theatre Inc. is a nonprofit hired by the city to run its property in exchange for a management fee. The city is responsible for major capital improvement needs, which, in the Carolina’s case, include new wiring, new carpet and a $700,000 dimmer system that could blow any time. The Carolina was shut down for three months in 2003 in order to make emergency safety repairs following a failed inspection. About a year later, the city approved money to install a new roof and HVAC system, but they have not been installed yet.

When the notion of a new theater first emerged in public conversation back in 1999, it came out of a desire to revitalize downtown. Architect Phil Szostak believes fervently it will have that effect, linking the downtown of realigned streets, small retail and struggling restaurants to the big, upscale developments down the hill (oh, and the jail).

Today, the section of downtown south of the railroad tracks has a few more lights on than it did six years ago. The promising patch of real estate where the DATA bus garage used to sit waits now like a blank canvas; if the city follows through with the theater, it will keep the rights to that location. Capitol Broadcasting, the developers of American Tobacco, have an option on the adjacent space. Offices and shops are likely to go there, in any case.

Meanwhile, the Carolina sits in disrepair up the road, its management wondering whether it will lose its most successful acts to the new kid on the block–the acts that pay for all the other cultural programming it offers. Nederlander has said it will not try to lure any of the Carolina’s acts, but there are no concrete agreements about booking or promotion. Mayor Bill Bell assures us that the new and old theaters can coexist, just as the Armory coexists with the Civic Center and the Durham Athletic Park with the Durham Bulls park.

According to the DCVB, the Carolina Theatre’s full gross economic impact on the city is $12 million annually. That’s a good return on an annual investment of half a million. But the roof leaks, and plaster sometimes falls like snow onto the stage during performances. As the city council mulls whether to vote in favor of the operating agreement on June 20, let them consider the question posed by our neglected downtown landmark: Does this city possess the political will to properly manage its investment?

Having inherited a tax that was already being collected and earmarked for “a performing arts theater” (as worded in the law), Durham’s leaders could have gone back to the legislature and said, “May we use the money instead to implement the Durham Cultural Master Plan (a project also funded by the tax, though for some reason undertaken concurrent to the theater plan)?” But in public meting after public meeting, this option was never seriously considered.

With construction scheduled to begin next summer, ADF might have a new home in time for its 75th anniversary season in 2008. The future of Durham’s other performing arts groups is less clear.

The African American Dance Ensemble will launch its 2005 season in August–at Meredith College in Raleigh. “We had better support in Raleigh,” Davis explains. “We’re hoping people from Durham will come over and see us.”