The proposed $350 million downtown performing arts center may be on life support, stuck in negotiations with the First United Methodist Church of Orlando and hampered by the sputtering economy, but it isn't dead yet. Meanwhile, however, the city has pledged to pay for more than $17.5 million for yet another performing arts center downtown, a $50 million project just a few blocks away in the Parramore Heritage District.
An empty lot at 701 W. Church St., at the corner of Parramore Avenue, is ready to be transformed into the Renaissance at Carver Square. The lot used to house the Carver Theatre, a movie house for African-Americans during the 1950s and '60s, which anchored the eight-room Carver Theatre Building.
The Renaissance has a split identity. There's the commercial side, an 11-story, 293,000-square-foot, multiuse project with office and retail space, a parking garage that'll be shared with the city, 17 condos and a business incubator; and then there's the 320-seat, nonprofit community Afashee Theatre buried within.
The city approved $17.5 million in funding last October, cementing a public-private partnership with Carver Theatre Developers LLC that was years in the making. The developers are partnered with Urban Trust Bank (a branch will be in the development), part of the RLJ Companies, which stands for Robert L. Johnson, owner of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats and founder of BET. Groundbreaking is set for the third quarter of 2009 at the earliest, or April 2010 at the latest.
But details about how developers plan to pay for the project are hard to come by. Carver Theatre Developers won't answer questions about their finances, except to say they will be using conventional means to come up with the funds.
That lack of specificity hasn't stopped the city and county from greenlighting funds, however. An initial payment of $878,000 was made Nov. 14 to the developer to cover upfront costs, to be followed by additional monies. According to city documents, future payments will be made "during construction or after construction is complete," based on established benchmarks. For example, the Community Redevelopment Agency will pay almost $1.2 million over the course of the construction of the theater, plus an additional $4 million in three annual sums of $1.33 million when finished.
As for the parking, the city's Community Venues Enterprise Fund has already dedicated $6 million toward the building of the 302-space garage, 281 of which are public spaces. And the CRA agreed to kick in an additional $4 million in reimbursements for the garage (also paid in three annual payments) "beginning at the completion of the construction of the Renaissance at Carver Square and receipt of a certificate of occupancy," according to the city.
Why another mixed-use development? Some say it's about reclaiming Parramore for its citizens, the city's need for a parking garage or salvaging a piece of local history (see sidebar). Others believe the project is a way for developers to get their hands on city money.
The nonprofit Afashee Theatre is clearly the selling point of the otherwise commercial Renaissance at Carver Square project. But the Afashee is an independent endeavor, says city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh. "Afashee is solely financially responsible for the operation of the theater. They will more than likely rely on the methods outlined in their business plan including ticket sales and grant money received through various sources."
However the money comes in, it's certain that developers are staking their project on the mixed-use ideal, the same vision that drove many of downtown's empty buildings. "You go up `the` elevator, bump into people and say, ‘Hey come on up for dinner,'?" says the Renaissance at Carver Square website, www.carvertheatredevelopers.com. The PR talk continues, "During dinner, everyone asks, ‘What's going on this evening? Let's go down and see "School Daze." The People's Theatre Company is putting it on downstairs at the Carver.' ‘The buzz is that Spike Lee might peek in!' … After the show, a group of you grab the LYMMO and go for dessert. There has to be something open at 1:30 in the morning. Have some coffee and call it an evening."
As things stand now, anyone on West Church Street at 1:30 a.m. looking for a mochaccino is going to find crime, drugs and the homeless. Even the most ardent supporters of redevelopment in Parramore know that these are major deterrents to rebuilding a community.
If you want more information about how this is going to work out, be prepared to dig for it. Jasmine Houston, assistant project manager of the Afashee Theatre, was "not comfortable" answering questions and declined even to e-mail a pamphlet on the theater. Instead, she referred inquiries to the project's public relations representative, Nancy Schwalb, who did get the pamphlet sent but provided little else.
Houston confirmed that "Afashee Theatre" is the official name of the performing arts space, which comes from the word "festival" in the Akan dialect spoken in the western region of Ghana.
The Afashee filed for nonprofit status in 2007. In March, the Afashee was one of five applicants to Orange County for money to buy equipment, even though the theater isn't close to being off the ground. Afashee developers wanted $150,000 for "theatre equipment, theatre seating, dressing rooms and theatre outfitting." While the county ranked it last behind projects like air conditioning repairs for the Orlando Science Center and a new sound system for the Lake Eola Amphitheater, the Afashee still got approved for the money. (The Board of County Commissioners has not yet signed off on the recommendations, but will make a decision no later than May 18.)
When asked by members of the county's Cultural Facilities Review Panel about how the Afashee will fund its operational expenses, Inez Long of the Black Business Investment Fund, which is working with the project's developers, said that those funds will come from private fundraising. "We're still working on that," Long told the firstname.lastname@example.org
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