Architectural renderings of the Orlando Performing Arts Center adorn the walls around a conference table in OPAC's new offices on the fourth floor of the squat, round building on Orange Avenue across the street from City Hall. The designs include visions created way back when under former mayor Glenda Hood alongside up-to-date revisions.

Officially, no decision has been made about what the OPAC will look like or where it will be located. But that doesn't mean there isn't a favored location; there is, and it's across the street from City Hall – bordered by Orange Avenue, South Street, Rosalind Avenue and Anderson Street. The other, rarely referenced site that's being considered is in the vicinity of the TD Waterhouse Centre.

If the "City Hall" model passes muster, OPAC's current offices would be among the buildings torn down, along with Orlando Fire Department's Fire Station No. 1 on Magnolia Avenue, which would be relocated. First United Methodist Church Orlando's Wesley Child Development Center – on the corner of Magnolia Avenue and South Street – would also have to go.

In fact, essential to this puzzle of a plan is securing a lease from First United Methodist for the northern portion of the parcel. In exchange for leasing the property to the not-for-profit OPAC Corp., probably for 99 years, the church would get a bigger and better educational facility, to be built and paid for by OPAC. On the blueprints, the church's building would be side-by-side with OPAC.

That a church and the city would share property may raise a few eyebrows. But it shouldn't, says James Pugh, president of Epoch Properties and president and chairman of OPAC. "They have something we want, and we have something they want." The church would have nothing to do with OPAC, and OPAC would have nothing to do with the church, Pugh says.

"We've made a proposal to them that we would build their building if they would lease us the balance of the land, and we don't have an answer on that yet," says Pugh, who's been handling negotiations.

Still, you can be forgiven if this particular marriage of church and state gives you pause. Wendy Riggins, the managing director of Atlanta's new $140 million Cobb Energy Centre, tied to the Cobb Galleria convention center, says she'd ask questions.

"I would want to know, am I going to have the governing body say you can't have Vagina Monologues? And I would want to know that they would not be involved in programming," she says. "And how is the church going to feel when somebody wants to complain and looks at the church because they have the lease? That is just the way people are."

But locals involved in the deal say there is nothing unusual about this land sharing. Urban real estate developer Craig Ustler, 36, president of Ustler Development Inc., a third-generation Orlandoan and a member of First United Methodist Church, thinks the potential arrangement between the city and the church is a natural.

"I feel like both sides are educated and they've been working on it for a while; it's been an evolutionary process, not a hastily reached decision," says Ustler, whose name is attached to CondoHQ Orlando LLC, among his other projects in Thornton Park, Delaney Park and Lake Eola Heights.

Churches typically own land in inner cities, Ustler says, and it's not uncommon for an inner-city landowner to lease land to developers, because that's all that is available. He cites the post office on Jefferson Street that leases the first floor from the Catholic Diocese of Orlando as an example.

Ustler is more excited by what could happen to the land surrounding the Orlando Performing Arts Center once the location is finalized. "The potential for ancillary development is tremendous," he says. "When it finally gets done, it is going to be a big deal … and Orlando is ready for it from an economic standpoint, as well."


Building a performing arts center was talked to death during Hood's administration, though it never came to fruition. But under Mayor Buddy Dyer's direction, it's possible that ground could be broken on the Orlando Performing Arts Center by 2007. Even with a price tag of $250 million plus, this project is moving fast.

The strongest indicator of that are the closed-door interviews with the top three development companies in the running – KUD International of New York City, Carter of Atlanta and Hines International of Houston – that took place Aug. 31. The winner will be announced Sept. 1, in a public meeting (4 p.m., the Sun Room, third floor, SunTrust Park Building, 250 S. Orange Ave.).

Selecting the developer is a huge step because no solid decisions – cost, location, operational funds, design, amenities – can be finalized until the developer comes on board as a partner, and an extremely influential partner, at that.

"The partnership OPAC will form with the developer, a public/private partnership, will be unique in the sense the total developed site will include public and private buildings," explains Richard "Zip" Zipperly, CEO of ZHA International, a development and management company and a consultant to the OPAC staff, in an e-mail:

"The private buildings (office, hotel, dining, retail and possible housing) will be integrated on site with public buildings (theaters, education, plazas, possible other government uses). The private use of a portion of the site will help pay for the public portions of the project. The details have yet to be defined, but we know the relationship will be unique for Central Florida for this specialized project. The best example of a similar project in our area is the Orlando International Airport [which involved ZHA], a public project that has a significant portion of the spaces built for private companies – the airlines, rent-a-cars, etc. The airlines are in partnership with the Aviation Authority, a public entity, to develop the airport for the public."

Between Sept. 1 and the end of the year, the OPAC board and the chosen developer will hammer out the particulars – most importantly, how much it will cost and where the money will come from. In January they present their master plan to Dyer, Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty and UCF President John Hitt, who are all ex-officio members of the not-for-profit OPAC board. (On the OPAC website it explains that "[t]he nonprofit corporation creates a community-wide effort as opposed to what could be perceived as only a City of Orlando effort. The not-for-profit will also serve as the vehicle to raise funds for the effort.")

But make no mistake about it – if this project falters, it's Dyer who'll take the blame. And the process doesn't allow for starting over if the trio isn't happy with the pitch.

To date, the OPAC board and the city have both been careful about sharing information they have amassed in two years of ground work, which was seeded by approximately $1 million in donations. Most of the board's activities have centered on executive committee meetings, which are not open to the public. Ramsberger ("executive on loan" from her position as the city's Director of Arts and Entertainment) and the PR firm representing OPAC, Pecora & Blexrud Inc., have staged two "public forums." Though the outreaches were more feel-good efforts than constructive exchanges, Ramsberger did tell the group gathered April 14 at Orlando Repertory Theatre that philanthropy is going to play a major role in funding the arts center. And that's an understatement.

Even as the OPAC project escalates through the end of the year, it will be up to Dyer, Crotty and Hitt to give the green light. And before we see that light, they will have to assess OPAC's needs in conjunction with the other major downtown projects, including the renovation of the TD Waterhouse Centre and the continued assimilation by the University of Central Florida of available downtown property, which started when it took over the Expo Center in January for its digital media program.

In any case, it's too late to question whether or not the OPAC is a good idea. What's important now is how much money it will cost to build and operate, and where that money will come from. Will it be at the expense of other much-needed city facilities, programs and services? The answers to those questions are what Orlando taxpayers should be seeking.

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