IMPERTINENT QUESTIONS 


;Amateur hour. There's no ;other way to describe the Orlando Performing Arts Center Corporation's Aug. 22 sales pitch to the Orange County Commission. Their proposal for a new performing arts center relied heavily on sentiment and didn't feel like a real discussion of a taxpayer-subsidized, $376 million public project that will lose millions of dollars every year into the foreseeable future.

;;You didn't hear the part about losing money? It's true, according to OPAC's own documents. And that wasn't the only detail glossed over in favor of happy talk about how everyone wants an arts center.

;;It's not like the city has been on top of the process either. They finally released a 283-page stack of documents detailing financial plans and studies for the performing arts center, an arena and a renovated Citrus Bowl to the county the night before county commissioners met to hear the plans for the first time. "It was so nice of them to deliver it the night before we do this thing," county spokesman Steve Triggs says. "We've only been asking for a year."

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;Like you, we've got some questions about this incredibly complex, poorly presented deal. You know, basic things that should have been clarified before this project ever went public. Things like …

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;What will it look like? Your guess is as good as ours — maybe better (see accompanying artist's conception). OPAC has yet to produce any drawings.

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;What is the University of Central Florida's role? Good question. OPAC wants 4,900 seats spread out over three theaters, the smallest of which would be a 300-seater designated as a UCF educational facility. UCF even secured a $15 million state grant for this theater. But UCF has distanced itself from the project and decided to build its own on-campus theater. So what happens to the grant money? OPAC says it's still in play. The city isn't so sure: "We believe they will [still get the grant money]," city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh says in an e-mail. "However, there is no commitment from the state at this time that they will honor the previous commitment they made for this grant."

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;Where is the money is coming from? This is an intricate deal and neither the city nor OPAC has adequately explained it. That's because some of the details, including an agreement between Orlando and Orange County, haven't been nailed down. The total price tag for the Orlando performing arts center and the development that will surround it is as high as $886 million. OPAC plans to sell adjacent, city-owned property to a private developer who would build a hotel, condos and an office tower. That would cover about half of the total cost. The city hasn't approved that plan yet.

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;According to OPAC, the public funding side of the equation amounts to about $376 million. Factoring in private fund-raising ($50 million in the budget, though OPAC says it can raise $75 million) and the $15 million state grant to UCF, that leaves $300 million for taxpayers. The city has already promised $160 million in cash, money it would raise from bonds based on the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency's future earnings, plus monies from its general fund, land sales and redevelopment.

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;The city's total cost is higher, factoring in things like parking and site preparation, for a total cost of $449 million. Under the city's formula, there's a $159 million funding gap between what's been pledged and what's needed.

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;The county has a $150 million pot from a tourist-development tax increase, but that money can only go to a new arena. County officials say there is as much as $300 million in other tourist taxes available over the next 25 years from existing tourism taxes, but that's based on the assumption that tourism tax revenues grow by at least 2.8 percent a year. While the county considers that a safe bet, it also isn't willing to take the risk.

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;The CRA would have to co-sign a bond for that money, and if the tourism economy tanks, the CRA would be responsible. In the unlikely event that the CRA defaulted, investors — not the city — would have to eat it. The city's bond rating would suffer, but taxpayers wouldn't have to pay up.

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;Bottom line: One chunk of the money is based on a booming tourism economy, and another part is based on soaring downtown property values. Again, we should probably know that at the outset.

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; Is this the friggin' Taj Mahal? "This is not a Porsche," OPAC board member Rita Bornstein told county commissioners. Maybe not, but it's definitely a blinged-out Mercedes. (In case you were wondering, $376 million would buy 4,273 2006 ;Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolets, give or take.) OPAC's estimates say the facility's construction will cost $43,900 per seat. Los Angeles spent about $120,000 per seat. Atlanta spent just under $100,000 per seat. Nashville spent about $55,000 per seat. But those are all larger cities with established arts crowds.

;;OPAC wants to spend more than Newark, N.J., West Palm Beach, Houston or Fort Worth, Texas. They used Paducah, Ky., population 26,307 as of 2000 — the name of which was misspelled in their presentation, by the way — as the low end of the spectrum at about $20,000 per seat. Paducah?

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; Will the arts center be self-sustaining? No. According to OPAC, it will lose between $4.2 million and $6.2 million a year through 2019. OPAC will rely on a combination of private donations and city money (Mayor Buddy Dyer has pledged annual $4 million payments for the next 30 years) to make ends meet. It's not uncommon for city governments to fund the arts, but it would be nice to be told exactly what we're on the hook for. (By the way, the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre breaks even or makes money and doesn't rely on city subsidies.)

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;Who's in charge of building and eventually operating the venue? OPAC. It oversees a development committee (with city and county representatives), which oversees the project management firm, which oversees the contractor and designer. That's the way 80 percent of arts centers are run, OPAC says. Local governments pay the money, but a nonprofit beholden to no voter gets the final say.

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; Who owns the land? The current proposal has the city as the landowner, leasing it to OPAC. The city hasn't signed off on that arrangement.

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; What's the deal with the church? Another loose end. The First United Methodist Church of Orlando has a building that OPAC would like to bulldoze. The city could use eminent domain to claim the property, but can you imagine the flak? It's likely the city or OPAC will buy the property from the church, and the church would then build another Sunday school building on its adjacent parking lot. Then, to smooth over the parking situation, the city would allow church members free use of garages the city plans to build.

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;We say "likely" because the church hasn't agreed to anything yet, and is in fact renovating the building OPAC would knock down.

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; Do Orlando residents really want this thing? According to OPAC itself, the answer is a resounding "yes." And that's really the only data we have to go on.

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;OPAC cited three polls, none of which were scientific.

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;The first was an Orlando Sentinel ad mail survey — a survey that goes out to Sentinel subscribers — in which 70 percent of respondents said they were "very much" in support of a performing arts center, and 65 percent said they would go to shows at a new facility more than they do now. The second was a straw poll at an Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce hobnob, in which attendees professed to value a performing arts center more than a new arena or Citrus Bowl. The third, and most ridiculous, comes from OPAC's website. Sixty-eight percent of respondents on that survey were "somewhat" or "very much" in support of the initiative. Think about that for a second: Of the people who go to OPAC's website, only two-thirds thought this a worthwhile project.

;;The only real poll comes from the Orlando Sentinel, which in March 2005 commissioned an actual phone survey conducted by a real polling firm. Therein, 60 percent of those polled favored spending tourist tax money on a new performing arts center (and renovating the Citrus Bowl). But that poll ;didn't include a price tag. It would have been nice to have more current polling with real numbers attached, but OPAC didn't provide that kind of information.

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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