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Keeping up appearances 

This is a corrected version of the original story, edited to reflect erroneous information originally supplied by DPAC to the reporter.

It isn't exactly a night at the opera. The recent Sunday matinee of Georges Bizet's popular gypsy romp through military mutiny, Carmen, does however, offer most of the trappings associated with more than 50 years of opera in Orlando: the predominately septuagenarian audience packed into the unforgiving orchestra rows and balcony of the 2,500-seat Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, the muted acoustics (it is, at times, easier to hear the elderly woman in the next seat humming along than the performance itself), the serviceable take on the artistically familiar.

At the end of the second act, bugles call soldier Don José off to his retreat, bugles that the fiery Carmen, his paramour, would prefer to hear as music for dancing.

"It's an orchestra out of thin air!" she exclaims in French.

It isn't. This is the first of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra's forays into staged concert opera, a makeshift collaboration with Mad Cow Theatre intended to fill the hole left by the crash of the 51-year-old Orlando Opera Company in April of last year. The idea, according to a note from the OPO in the program, is "to preserve opera as an art form in Central Florida, maintain jobs for musicians, singers, actors and stage crew, and nurture the community's passion for opera."

By all appearances, it is an unmitigated success. It's also an indication of where the local arts stand now: scarred, but smarter. Local arts groups, stretched to their fiscal limits, are doing their best just to stay afloat, creatively altering their missions when necessary in order to fill in the gaps. Neither Mad Cow nor the Orlando Philharmonic increased their staff or operations budgets for Carmen. They did it out of necessity; they did it out of their belief in the region's arts community. Moreover, they did it with a sense of faith that in a few years time, their efforts would be rewarded with a better place to grow their businesses: a new performing arts center.

But at some point in the past four years of economic disaster, running concurrent with the city of Orlando's quest to erect a $383 million performing arts center — now branded as the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts — to connect the arts in Orlando, the local arts were effectively stripped from the equation.

Last year, under expected financial pressure brought on by decreasing tax revenues, the city and DPAC, its non-profit created expressly for the purposes of getting the center built, decided on a phased plan of construction, one that would indefinitely remove the 1,700-seat acoustic hall intended to house the resident local arts groups from the scheduled 2013 opening, leaving only a 2,700-seat Broadway hall for high-dollar touring acts and a 300-seat black-box theater for undetermined purposes. The Bob Carr, with its substandard acoustics, will remain open.

That's a direct, if temporary, violation of the mission standards set out in the original agreement, which was to "provide a venue for the performances of the Orlando Philharmonic, Orlando Ballet, Orlando Opera, Festival of Orchestras and Broadway performances in Orlando (or any of their successors)."

But bringing that fact up is considered tantamount to poisoning the well in local art circles, so you won't find many critics of the performing arts center around town, even though local arts groups have been effectively shut out of the proposed building for years to come. As a result, Orlando is on track to get an expensive new hall for touring shows exclusively, even if it doesn't need one.

In a December New York Times piece titled "In the arts, bigger buildings may not be better," experts railed against the tendency of municipalities to throw money at larger venues for the sake of accommodating perceptions of greater need.

"Some are arguing that the arts administrators and their patrons succumbed to an irrational exuberance that rivaled the stock market's in the boom years," the piece reported.

Which sounds a lot like Orlando's mindset when it comes to building a new performing arts center.

"This is a really easy project not to do, because it's so hard," says DPAC president, Kathy Ramsberger in the first floor conference room of the group's downtown "round building" headquarters. She has said this before.

For every story of a performing arts center expanding a city's cultural base, there seems to be an opposing reality of failure. Miami's now solvent Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts opened as the Carnival Center in Oct. 2006. The $473 million venue (with cost overruns totaling $218 million) immediately fell into a financial freefall, thanks in large part to bad planning. It now receives more than $7 million annually from Miami-Dade County for continuing operations. After five years of operations, Fort Worth's privately funded Bass Performance Hall saw one-year declines of 20 percent in attendance and $1 million in revenue. It's a trend that beleaguers more performing arts centers than not.

The idea of a new performing arts center led the three-pronged charge for new venues when it was signed by Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer in 2006. It was more popular by far than building a new $480 million arena for the Orlando Magic (opening in October), or spending $175 million to renovate the in Citrus Bowl (on indefinite hold).

Since then, it has run into some problems. Negotiations with the First United Methodist Church to buy property resulted in a three-month delay with the church eventually accepting a handsome offer of $28.35 million.

"At the end of the day, whether that was a good deal or a bad deal doesn't matter when the building is up," says Ramsberger. "We are building a city."

The rest has been a complex financial house of cards. To date, DPAC has been awarded $129 in bonds from the city, $15 million from a Florida Department of Education grant and pledges of approximately $85 million from private donors (of which they have access to only $65.6 million via a Bank of America credit line). Earlier this month, the city cooked the books in order to push back $32 million in further bond issues until the anticipated 2013 completion of the building.

But the big hole in the financing comes from the county.

Orange County has only signed over $10 million of the anticipated $130 million from tourist development taxes, and the remaining county funds are not expected to come in any time soon as tourism numbers continue to plummet. When DPAC board chairman Jim Pugh made motions late last year to pressure the county into making up for the shortfall, he was shut down by Crotty. The county isn't as enthusiastic about the project as the city.

"There have been no official asks," says county commissioner Bill Segal. "There's no nothing. They know the money's not there. They've been kind of groveling around. I don't think they know where to go, what to do. I think the broader sort of a picture is that they need to reshuffle the deck."

In February, the city decided against sending a 96-page redlined revision of the original performing arts center funding agreement through either the county commission or the city council, claiming that because they were essentially just stretching out the entire process — not changing it — they didn't need to trouble the bureaucracy. The document, in addition to making arrangements for the Bob Carr to remain open, consists largely of shifts in funding to adapt to the new phased plan.

"Actually, it's probably more effective to put procedural things elsewhere, because procedures can change a lot, and we can be more flexible that way," says city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh,

All told, instead of the anticipated $383 million in total funds, DPAC is now faced with making the best of $250 million, which places it below the $413 million for Kansas City's two-hall Kauffman Center opening in 2011, and above Marietta, Ga.'s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre — which mirrors Orlando's in size (it has one 2,750-seat theater) — that prices at just $140 million.

"So what we said to the mayor is if we're going to build this project in this economy, let's assume that we're not going to raise another penny," says Ramsberger. She says reports of DPAC moving forward without money have been misleading. "We're not starting this project without having the money available."

Moreover, the decision to move ahead with the Broadway theater in lieu of the acoustic hall was not made lightly, or privately. Donors and board members wholeheartedly signed on for the changes, some even doubling their donations, says Ramsberger, alluding to another $2 million that DPAC is waiting to announce to the public for the sake of "momentum."

Those who were intending to fund a better place to experience the ballet or symphony stayed on board too, she says, hoping that the hall might manifest itself "in `their` lifetime," morbidly. She's also proposing an additional $70 million in fundraising to possibly lay the foundations for the rest of the structure. That should please the cynics.

"You know the irony is you would have thought at the beginning of this project that the fragility would be philanthropy," says Ramsberger. "But the irony is the fragility was the `tourist development tax`, which everyone would think is bulletproof because we were Orlando."

Ramsberger's plans for what's left of the Phillips Center aren't exactly bulletproof. Laid out in PowerPoint form, they come off as crudely ambitious and lofty.

Utilizing a so-called "circle," DPAC intends to spread the word through a series of "pop-up concerts" and dinner parties throughout the region as the roll-out begins; a collective of rotary clubs and homeowners' associations set to weave a networking web of positivity. Any money raised through this in-group social fundraising will go back into more building and operations, she says.

The method isn't a new one. Ramsberger cites both World Cup and Olympic host-city campaigns as models. She also takes a clinical turn in comparing the process to the fundraising involved in hospital development; in other words, not typical arts boosterism. All of these plans come under the close advice of outside industry leaders, she says, including CEOs of other performing arts centers.

"Any of these very, very large projects take a long time to develop and are challenging. They're very, very difficult," says Judith Lisi, the president of Tampa Bay's Straz Center for the Performing Arts for the past 18 years. "They're a completely new concept to a community, so it's a great deal of informing people about what it is. And, even then, until it's there and functioning — and then building a relationship with the community — it's at that point that people start valuing it. It's very hard on paper."

Harder still when the whole project is only partially formed.

The Straz Center — formerly the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center — was built for $57 million back in 1987, and now boasts an operating budget around $45 million annually for its five theaters; $6 million of that comes from private and public donations. Though Lisi did have to lay off 20 staffers last year, the organization has remained in the black since she took over a $4 million deficit upon arriving in 1992.

"What happens is if you're constantly concerned about debt, then you can't provide your mission with excellence," she says. "It's counterproductive, because it becomes the priority. With that said, it's hard when these places open, because depending on how the financial infrastructure was put together, and there could be that there's a debt service, that there's a plan for how to serve it. There just has to be a way of how you're going to do these things, but then you have to really do it."

DPAC isn't clearly acknowledging its potential for operational deficits as of yet. The city has capped its annual contribution to venue maintenance at $500,000, according to the Ramsberger, while DPAC is aiming for annual philanthropic contributions of $2 million to $2.5 million.

"Our board feels comfortable raising $2 million a year, annually," says Ramsberger. "We don't have to present as much until we grow into the building."

The annual estimate for operations costs is $12.5 million, a number set to include as-yet-undetermined education initiatives (Ramsberger cites Tampa Bay's hip-hop dance program as a possibility), the costs of presenting in the Broadway theater and programming the black-box theater. Steven Wolff of AMS Consulting, the firm assisting DPAC with its plans, says that they're working to maintain an earned-to-unearned ratio in line with industry averages (near 70 percent earned), but "there's still a lot of moving parts." Ramsberger estimates that the building will bring in between $10 million and $10.5 million annually. That would require the performing arts center to generate more than $27,000 daily. That's assuming that they would be presenting daily, something that would be impossible given the seasonal nature of touring and allowances for loading in and loading out equipment on dark days.

"We are intentionally not being optimistic on the revenue side," says Wolff. "We're intentionally being conservative on the expense side."

On the expense side, DPAC is currently working on a pre-operations internal budget of $25 million over seven years — $3 million will be used this year on staff, office space, overhead, events and operations. That amount does not include the $10 million already paid to architects Barton Myers Associates, the $28 million for the church property, or the "prorated" amount presently being serviced to development manager Hines as they oversee two-thirds of the Dr. Phillips Center's construction. It does include Ramsberger's reported annual salary of $275,000.

A glaring omission from most talks about the promise of a new performing arts center is what is going to happen to the old one: The Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre. In an official statement, the city says that the plans for the Bob Carr remain up in the air.

"Due to the new staging plan for DPAC, both Bob Carr and the new center will be open and operating for a period of time," the statement reads. "As a result, it is important that both venues work together to coordinate shows rather than competing against one another. Together, DPAC and city staffs are evaluating the best model to operate both venues — this has not been finalized."

But it has been discussed. According to the 96-page revision of the performing arts center funding agreement, DPAC will take over operations of the Bob Carr by the time the Dr. Phillips Center is open in 2013. The Bob Carr averages nearly $2 million in operating revenue yearly, though most of that is eaten up by expenses (the center had a gross profit of $262,636 in 2009).

Keeping the Bob Carr open takes a huge piece of the performing arts center financing puzzle off the table. The Carr is owned by the city and is an $18-million contribution to the $90 million the city needs to get from the sale of the Centroplex to make the numbers work for all of the venues, the new Magic arena included. The city has already issued commercial paper against its magic figure of $90 million, though the Centroplex property has never been officially appraised (the city based its numbers on appraisals of the nearby Centroplex parking garage and the Orlando police headquarters).

Though quality issues may plague the Bob Carr, it is affordable for local and touring presentations. Nonprofit rates are about $1,000 per night (plus $500 for load-in), while commercial rates are double that. The Dr. Phillips Center could charge local groups as much as $6,000 per night for use of the Broadway hall, going by figures previously provided by Wolff.

At the moment, DPAC is in the "exploration" phase of just how the two competing theaters could work together. The Bob Carr routinely ranks in the upper ranks of industry booking charts; the fact that it booked to capacity annually is currently being factored into DPAC's operations plans. Now, they effectively will have two venues at odds with each other, one of which is far cheaper to rent out and therefore less attractive to the revenue-minded DPAC

"There could be some benefits to consolidating the operations between the Bob Carr and the Dr. Phillips Center," says Ramsberger.

Regardless, there are some holes in the DPAC's plan to bring in revenues. Pointing at renderings of an outside stage at the end of a field, Ramsberger says, "I could see Fringe here." Another building might or might not be built to house an educational institution. Ramsberger mentions comedian Jerry Seinfeld as a "cash cow" and talks up self-presenting touring Broadway productions, like The Lion King and Grey Gardens. That's where the real money is.

"The difficult reality that is very hard for the classical arts groups to accept is the fact that the only thing that truly makes money is Broadway and pop shows like Harry Connick Jr. and Sting," Lisi told the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram in 2003.

The Broadway component could be tricky. Presently, the local Fairwinds Broadway Across America series is presented at the Bob Carr by Florida Theatrical Association through a profit-sharing contract with the city. The company's president and chief executive officer, Ron Legler, says there haven't yet been any negotiations with DPAC about the transition to the new hall, although he understands that all Broadway shows will move there.

But Ramsberger seems flippant about continuing to work with Florida Theatrical, calling the company "a choice," before bringing up the fact that Florida Theatrical's parent company, Broadway Across America, has switched hands numerous times over the last few years.

"The industry is evolving," she says.

It could be evolving away from Legler, a supporter of the project for the last six years.

"I'm hoping we can come to an agreement with DPAC," says Legler. "I don't think she should be in the business of hurting local arts groups. It shouldn't be the goal to take out a major local arts organization."

Ramsberger, however, puts that onus on the arts groups themselves.

"Let's say, if our Orlando Gay Chorus or our Orlando community can't organize any event around Pride week here. If they can't organize something to use the center, we would. What we might do is go and get the Los Angeles Gay Chorus, which is phenomenal, and Miami brings them down there," says Ramsberger.

"What a local person would say, because they're pithy, they'd say, ‘That's fine, they're bringing other people here.' And we'd say, ‘You have a place here, too.'"

"You have to be organized to use it," she continues. "We're not going to say, ‘Here's a check, come and do this.' Homegrown stuff has to be homegrown within the community. You can't have somebody else come in and say, ‘I'm going to grow your community.' They've got to grow it themselves."

For local arts groups, the idea of reconfiguring their business models to suit DPAC is not popular, or even feasible.

According to a February report from United Arts of Central Florida, the combined operational budget of all of the region's nonprofits was $41.4 million — less than the operating budget of the Straz Center in Tampa Bay — putting the area at "about the size of the cultural sector in Black Hills region of South Dakota," notes the report. Regardless, 10 of 13 "cultural cornerstone groups" in the region did manage to close out their 2009 fiscal years in the black. One, the Orlando Opera Company, didn't finish at all.

"We are as anxious as anyone to get a new home up and running for our locally owned and operated organizations," says United Arts president and CEO Margot Knight in an e-mail. "The economy has deferred that dream for a while. Our work stays the same — to make sure the actors and dancers and musicians who live, work and pay taxes here keep working."

To date the fundraising efforts of DPAC have not interfered with those of United Arts, she says, although she does project some overlap when the performing arts center moves forward with its operations fundraising, estimated to be between $2 million and $2.5 million annually. Among the 13 "cornerstone" groups, contributed income only totaled $9 million in 2009, with 2010 projections falling to $7 million.

For David Schillhammer, executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, feelings toward the Dr. Phillips Center are understandably bittersweet. (Ironically, the Dr. Phillips Center's new logo is based on a conductor's hand motions.)

"While we applaud the building of a Broadway hall, by definition it is not built for music," he says. "There are little to no acoustic considerations being made for music in the Broadway hall, and we prefer to stay in a facility that, at least in part, is built for music."

Schillhammer hopes that DPAC will take into consideration some acoustic refurbishments for the Bob Carr while the future acoustic hall remains in limbo; the Philharmonic has already gone as far as to remove the existing band shell, finding the sound better when just playing against the back wall.

"We think there are some things that could be done that aren't expensive that could help improve the situation there," he says.

Meanwhile, the Philharmonic — which runs on a $3 million annual operating budget with an endowment of only $3.7 million — has been left to deal with the shadow of the Dr. Phillips Center encroaching on its bottom line.

Two years ago, when it still seemed a certainty that the Philharmonic would be relocating to the new arts center, Schillhammer was ramping up for an expansive endowment campaign. That never happened.

"We have not been successful in launching our next phase of endowment building, both due to the fact that money was being invested in the performing arts center — and then the sagging economy — both caused us to say, ‘Now is not the time.'"

He and his board are moving forward with their endowment campaign in the coming year. As for DPAC, he is crossing his fingers.

"I remain confident in the board of directors of DPAC — that they are committed, that the building does not just stop with the Broadway hall, but that they are committed to what I call the true performing arts center, the original vision of the performing arts center, which was the home for the local organizations: opera, ballet and symphony," he says.

Self proclaimed "numbers guy" Juan Escalante took over the reins as executive director for the struggling Orlando Ballet in October, right on the heels of recently hired artistic director Robert Hill. Together they've been repurposing the ballet, hoping to skew to a younger audience. Ramsberger says that the ballet may be capable of utilizing the Broadway theater, an option DPAC intends to offer them at a cut rate more in line with what they would charge for the acoustic hall.

But while Escalante says he is "extremely supportive" of DPAC, the product his company is currently putting out might not suit the larger theater, even if parts of it are blocked off.

"With `Hill's` artistic vision, which is very contemporary, very edgy, it's something that seems to be getting to the masses, seems to be appealing to our demographics here," he says. "And a lot of that work looks better in an intimate setting. So if you put it in a stadium, it's going to get lost."

He hopes to bring the financially troubled ballet's operating budget down from $4.5 million to beneath the $4 million mark. He's not taking his eyes off of DPAC, though.

"It could be a problem, but I've been paying a lot of attention to it for obvious reasons, because the last thing we want is for DPAC to be competition for us in regards to fundraising," he says. "It has to be a collaboration from day one, otherwise it's not going to work. There's no point in having a beautiful performing arts center and there's no local companies performing in it."

For other groups, who have always been at the short end of DPAC's hypothetical stick, attention to the Dr. Phillips Center is waning.

"What I can tell you, I've never had one conversation with the city of Orlando or Kathy Ramsberger about any sort of Fringe involvement anywhere throughout this whole process," says Beth Marshall, producing artistic director for the annual Orlando International Theatre Fringe Festival.

That didn't keep Marshall from initially supporting DPAC; like many others, she saw it as a win-win. Now she couldn't care less.

"I was behind it because what I thought it was doing, it was going to provide a home for the philharmonic, the opera and the ballet — these cultural things that were going to make us a mega-arts city," she says. "I'm more apathetic about it than I am pissed off about it, because the reality of it is, it isn't going to affect the Fringe in one way or another."

Or, possibly, anybody else in the local arts.

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