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Consultants support Utah Performing Arts Center plan

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 28 2011 9:07 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A new theater capable of hosting first-run touring Broadway shows would complement Salt Lake City's arts district, not compete with other downtown venues, according to theater officials in other U.S. cities.

Consultants from Denver, Durham, N.C., and Dayton, Ohio, visited Salt Lake City this week to lend their experience to Mayor Ralph Becker's plan to build a state-of-art theater in the heart of downtown.

Officials representing performing arts venues in the three cities joined Becker for a community forum Wednesday evening at the Salt Lake City Main Library to share how new theaters have changed their communities for the better.

"As we continue to move forward with this exciting project, there are many lessons we can garner from other cities that have recently grown their cultural opportunities with new performing arts space," Becker said.

The three consultants represent ventures where a new theater was part of downtown revitalization projects and where those venues have become assets in promoting economic development.

Ken Neufeld, president and CEO of the Victorian Theater Association and operator of the Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, said the venue has become "a point of pride" in Dayton.

"We were the last piece of an urban development strategy," Neufeld said of the Schuster Center. "We finished (a redevelopment) of a lot of downtown that was abandoned. We were the final piece of the puzzle."

The Schuster Center boasts an operating budget of $19.4 million in revenue for 2011-12, with much of that due to its ability to attract first-run touring Broadway shows, Neufeld said.

"Broadway determines our bottom line," he said.

In 2008, Becker announced plans to build the Utah Performing Arts Center at approximately 135 S. Main, just south of the City Creek project. Current estimates project the theater would cost $100 million to build, plus another $10 million to $20 million for related site improvements.

"That block in the heart of our downtown … has been relatively inactive now for decades," Becker said.

The Utah Performing Arts Center, he said, would be a catalyst for development and an activity generator for downtown.

"With the opening of City Creek (in March 2012), this location needs a catalyst," Becker said.

With roughly 150 performances per year, a 2,500-seat theater would bring new and existing patrons downtown and generate an estimated $9 million per year, the mayor said.

No new taxes would be levied as part of the financing for the plan, and existing government subsidies for local arts programs would continue, Becker said.

"We have found approaches that would at minimum do no harm (to existing arts programs)," he said.

Part of the financing for the proposed theater would come from expiring bonds on other downtown facilities, including EnergySolutions Arena.

Helen Langan, senior adviser to the mayor, said the economic model for a new theater would make it an asset rather than a liability, unlike some segments of the performing arts that require significant subsidies or sponsorships.

Langan said several operating scenarios are being considered, with the favored option being a partnership with Salt Lake County, which operates the other major performing venues downtown: the Capitol Theatre, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center and Abravanel Hall.

The three consultants agree that a 2,500-seat theater capable of attracting first-run touring Broadway productions would be both a cultural and economic asset.

"It's the missing piece of the puzzle," Neufeld said.

Last year, the Schuster Center and its 2,300-seat Mead Theatre attracted 470,000 people to downtown Dayton, he said.

Abravanel Hall is currently is the largest of downtown venues, with a seating capacity of 2,768, though it's designed as a concert hall. The Capitol Theatre, which hosts later runs of touring Broadway productions, seats 1,876, and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center can accommodate 501.

"What you're missing is 2,500 seats," Neufeld said.

The three consultants also supported the proposed location of the theater, just south of City Creek.

Reginald Johnson, interim director of Durham's Department of Community Development, called the site "an impressive place to put it."

Johnson also serves as liaison to Durham's two city-owned theaters — the 1,000-seat Carolina Theatre and the 2,800-seat Durham Performing Arts Center.

Locating the proposed Utah Performing Arts Center in the heart of downtown "makes perfect sense," said Randy Weeks, president and COO of The Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com, sfidel@desnews.com

Twitter: SteveFidel

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