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It's time to give up on the performing arts center

It was the world's most expensive cherry on top of an otherwise nasty cake when presented in 2007 as the third piece to the regional venues deal; what would go on to be named the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts - replete with branding flourishes and flashy cardboard renderings - was, after all, the only venue that made sense. Local arts groups deserved a more suitable home for their burgeoning highbrow cultural events, and the community deserved more than the humble and humbling constraints of the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre's muted (if passable) institutional flatness. We wanted this to happen. Instead, we got an arena for a billionaire.

But in the four years since, the $380 million "arts" project has morphed into a sociopolitical soap opera that should have all parties involved flushed with embarrassment. First, in the wake of an economic downturn that saw philanthropic contributions dry up from $50 million in 2007 to just $1 million in 2009, the project was quietly repurposed into a performing arts center in name only, leaving most of the local groups referenced specifically in its mission statement - the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Orlando Ballet, the now defunct Orlando Opera and likewise shuttered Festival of Orchestras - without their promised 
new home.

Assurances were puffed into the air like so much smoke that the phasing of the arts center was a temporary act of necessity, one that would be remedied when tourist development tax revenue recovered from the recession and the county could pony up its $130 million share. These days, the term "indefinite hiatus" is more applicable. What mattered was that we were getting the foundation of a "world-class" cultural destination; just hide and watch. From there, the Jenga tower began its almost comical crumble: A new county administration balked at the shady behind-the-scenes financial excesses of the high-society nonprofit tasked with managing the project, a Hail Mary toss involving the creation of new construction nonprofit led by Disney and Orlando Magic executives whistled its way into the picture, scathing memos surfaced between two battling mayors and a chorus of wealthy desperation turned the whole movement into a high school throwdown. Sometimes you don't even need a stage; sometimes the drama just happens on its own.

The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is now facing a May 23 deadline on its questionable construction bids. The city and the Phillips Center folks have been working overtime to position themselves as victims of the county's scrutiny, openly threatening that, should the deadline pass without some groundbreaking action, the project could fail outright. Up to $70 million in donations - or nearly all of them - could be lost. At the same time, rumors are circulating that the millionaires who comprise the performing arts center's base may just step in and loan the cash to the project themselves, county be damned.

If it sounds like a hopeless grudge match, that's because it is. Local arts leaders (typically off the record) bristle at the mention of the center, not to mention the "arts" portion of its moniker that made the project so appealing in the first place, largely because those nonprofits - including the Orlando Ballet, which lost its executive director on April 20 amid financial struggles - are lobbying for the same scant funds. Local boosters have taken to smear tactics in an unseemly attempt to quiet the criticism from the media and the public alike. The entire notion has been polluted by egos and cash, sorority bitchiness and cries of, if you can believe it, sexism. Kathy Ramsberger, the president of DPAC, has been reduced to a quiet martyr with gold-plated wagons circling her. Even with her $289,000 salary, even though her management of the operations thus far has been suspect, she is still portrayed as a consummate champion besieged by tumbling, erroneous doubt. This shouldn't be the case in the high-stakes world of public-
private construction. If anything, it proves that this is all a game.

Of even greater concern, though, are the political implications. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs approved of the project as a county commissioner in 2007, but she - and her administration - have been publicly vilified for daring to question the project's details ever since Jacobs took office in January. Jacobs, noted for being detail-oriented and not afraid to speak up, has stepped into a civic anthill with the performing arts center. But let's be clear: This is not a Republican trying to squash a liberal dream. It's common sense bleeding into a bubble-minded economic development hangover.

And while the Orlando Sentinel may be blithely high-fiving the arts center, declaring it's "still a needed project" in an editorial on April 26, what exactly it's needed for remains unclear. How's it going to look when the city starts demolishing the old Amway Arena while it continues to complain about increasing construction costs hindering the performing arts center? Why not throw a couple of million into refashioning the Bob Carr instead? "Build them all, build them now, build them right," was the rallying call four years ago. There is nothing "right" about the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in its current imagined iteration.

Take a breath and build it when you can. This soap opera needs to be canceled.

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