There's been a buzz about the development of a formal Downtown Arts District for years. A few things happened, and a few proclamations were made, during Mayor Glenda Hood's reign. (Remember Horizons 2000 and Arts for All Seasons? Nobody else does, either.)

But since Mayor Buddy Dyer took over in early 2003 when Hood upgraded to Secretary of State, the buzz has quieted, except for occasional murmurs that Dyer wants to revive the idea of a new performing arts center. (We hear he's pushing hard again.) Talking with local arts insiders, it's apparent that few people have kept up with the convoluted evolution of the Downtown Arts District. Why should they? Even the explanation is somewhat convoluted.

Someday, the Downtown Arts District may be an actual place. Right now, it is a proposed geographic designation – bordered by Colonial Drive, Division Avenue, Anderson Street and Hyer Avenue. The boundaries could change, even though the signage is already up featuring Mardi Gras-style graphics and the designation "Downtown Arts District," as if there already were such a thing.

But really the signs are more indicative of the future plan for a groovy urban zone, rich in arts and culture – theaters, galleries, restaurants and clubs – that'll bring waves of pedestrian traffic bearing pockets full of cash, hopefully many of them urban dwellers in the nearby condominiums going up.

The boundaries were drawn up by a group called Downtown Arts District Inc., which filed for private, nonprofit status in 2002. But D.A.D. Inc., and the arts-networked people driving it, have been around forever. D.A.D. is an outgrowth of the Central Florida Performing Arts Alliance (formerly the Central Florida Theater Alliance), established in 1997 by Terry Olson, now the administrator of Orange County's Department of Arts & Cultural Affairs.

For the past two years, the city of Orlando has contracted with D.A.D. for two things, according to the city's 2003-2004 agreement: arts facilities development and the promotion of the downtown arts district, both of which carry fund-raising responsibilities. In exchange, explains Kathy Ramsberger, director of Orlando's Arts & Cultural Affairs office, the city gave D.A.D. $250,000 in matching grants. (D.A.D. could not produce the paperwork required of nonprofits showing their total fund-raising efforts.) D.A.D. received $250,000 in 2002 without the matching requirement.

D.A.D. is helping to carry out Dyer's mission to grow arts and culture downtown, says Ramsberger, an allied director on the D.A.D. board.

What have they done with the money? According to Eric Ercole, D.A.D.'s newly hired executive director, D.A.D has "kept OVAL moving forward. We have helped Mad Cow [Theater Company] find and renovate a new facility. We funded the renovation of the Studio Theatre, which is over in the Theatre Garage. We gave the [Orlando International] Fringe [Festival] a grant to subsidize spaces. And we have fostered the Third Thursdays program. And not to toot my own horn, but they hired an executive director – me."

Ercole's hiring should raise D.A.D.'s profile as it steps into fund-raising mode for the 2004-2005 season. Previously made up of volunteers – which translated into some disorganization, according to Olson – Ercole is D.A.D.'s first paid employee. He was chosen for his arts marketing experience, both from a recent position with the Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau and with the city of Chicago before that.

In May, D.A.D. elected its new board of directors, making Ron Legler the chair. Legler is the executive director of the Florida Theatrical Association (and owner of Pulse nightclub). Other directors are: Jim Lussier, past-chair (an attorney with Mateer & Harbert); Jennifer Quigley, vice chair/chair elect (WBQ Engineering); Mark Terry, secretary (Terry/Kane Orlando Inc.); Meghan Warrick, treasurer (CFO of Community Foundation of Central Florida); Ramsberger and Olson, allied directors.

Olson says that D.A.D. has been operating somewhat underground, not able to grow as quickly as it hoped because of changes in the economy and the city. Previously, D.A.D. negotiated with the Hood administration, particularly with Brenda Robinson, then head of the city's office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. But D.A.D's planned funding of $750,000 was drastically scaled back after Dyer took office, bringing cuts in the city staff and budget with him. Robinson resigned.

Now, a year later, the situtation is improving, says Olson. "The economy is on the upswing and downtown development is booming." And D.A.D. can't wait any longer to try to make good on its goal to pick up affordable and available real estate that can be turned into arts venues that will ground the district, he adds.

So Ercole is making things happen. When we sat down to talk, he explained that the D.A.D. board was planning a major retreat this month to bring the 25 members up-to-date and to plan for the coming year. After the retreat, there could be some changes, says Ercole. For instance the inscrutable D.A.D. logo – at the bottom of the signs marking the district – might go. And the boundaries of the Downtown Arts District could change in order to merge more efficiently with already existing city programs. Ercole sees these decisions as top priorities for D.A.D.

That's where things get sticky. The city still maintains the program, initiated under Hood, that established the Cultural Corridor, which runs from the site of the proposed downtown performing arts center, north on Orange Avenue to Loch Haven Park – home of the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival, Orlando Science Center, Orlando Museum of Art and Orlando Repertory Theatre, with the city's Mennello Museum of American Folk Art just across the road.

"We have an enormous anchor in Loch Haven Park," says Ramsberger, who is involved with both the D.A.D. and Cultural Corridor programs, and intends to make sure they work together.

Still, many people are watching how the city will plan, fund and promote both a downtown-confined arts district, and a Cultural Corridor extension to Loch Haven Park. The competition between the north and south ends of the Cultural Corridor didn't prove to be a winning situation at this year's Fringe Festival. Downtown just didn't have the convenient, quality venues that drew theatergoers to Loch Haven Park. And D.A.D. doesn't want that to happen again. Thus, the need for an intensive venue search-and-secure mission before next spring.

Both Ercole and Olson believe the approach with the best chance of success is to work with the downtown developers, making sure they dedicate space – large or small – to the arts from the beginning as part of their leases.

Will downtown developers putting up the product want the promotion of an arts district to be exclusive to downtown? That's where Ramsberger's role becomes critical in facilitating the missions of both the city and D.A.D., as well as all the other allied associations, such as the Downtown Development Board and the Downtown Orlando Partnership. Ultimately, D.A.D. will present its 2004-2005 plan to the city for approval the same way every other contractor does.

Mary Anne Dean, executive director of the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival, is a longtime supporter of D.A.D. and its predecessors. Naturally she's sensitive to how the future development of the Cultural Corridor and the Downtown Arts District will play out. The course of action should be clearer, says Dean, when D.A.D. comes out of their retreat. "What is their mission? And how will they do it?"

Ramsberger agrees. "Our city has grown and changed and both D.A.D. and the city are revising a mission for a growing city."

We'll keep you posted.


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