Changing the skyline

Could a first-rate performing arts center duplicate Durham's spark?

Apparently there’s a good bit of difference between talk and dialogue.

There’s been talk here for years and years about building a state-of-the-art performing arts center, perhaps as a skyline-changing addition to Augusta’s vastly underdeveloped riverfront.

But now the talk seems to have changed into dialogue – the difference being the seriousness of it.

The forward-looking Augusta Tomorrow organization, which in 2009 unveiled a master plan for the core of Augusta/North Augusta, has various implementation teams working on aspects of the plan, including the proposal for a performing arts center.

Area arts organizations and others are being sought out – as the plan can, and must, include preservation of arts venues already here, including the Imperial (already restored) and Miller (to be restored) theaters.

Remarkably, designers and managers of other performing arts centers around the region have actually contacted local officials on their own to discuss doing such a project here.

And in June, one of those designers – Philip Szostak, a North Carolina architect – wrote a column in The Chronicle touting Augusta’s potential.

 

“Could it be done in Augusta?” he wrote. “You bet it can, if Durham’s experience is any indication.”

Augusta Tomorrow folks have visited Szostak’s work in Durham, N.C., several times and have come away more than impressed. They’ve been wowed.

And for good reason: Little Durham has turned itself around, largely through the savvy design and professional operation of its $46 million performing arts center – which is, incredibly, the busiest in America.

“The Durham Performing Arts Center,” writes the News and Observer, “sold more tickets than any other venue of its size in the country in the first half of the year, according to a survey by Pollstar Magazine.

“DPAC, which can accommodate about 2,700 people, outranked venues such as the Fox Theater in Atlanta and the Coliseum in Las Vegas.”

Along with the famous Bull Durham Triple-A ballpark, which is nearby, the revitalized area brings in a million or so people a year. Monty Osteen, an Augusta Tomorrow board member, says even the heady and famous Research Triangle is looking enviously at what Durham has done.

“They’ve really converted that downtown area into an amazing place,” Osteen says.

Land at the site, notes Szostak, went from $4 a square foot before DPAC’s construction to $80 a square foot after.

“How in the world, in little bitty Durham, how did this work?” asks Osteen, but only rhetorically.

The key, he explains, is top-flight design and management. DPAC is designed to accommodate Broadway shows while minimizing setup and breakdown costs that would eat up profits – events that might skip other less-welcoming theaters. And the management company, Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, keeps things
hopping.

“DPAC’s been a game-changer in Durham, and I think an Augusta performing arts center would be an absolute game changer in Augusta,” Osteen says. “Pretty much the most exciting thing we’ve talked about in many years, I think.”

Worries about existing venues in town melt away from the Durham experience: The Carolina, a historic theater there, has thrived since DPAC opened, and the two entities even coordinate events and marketing.

Brenda Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, says the arts community here hasn’t heard much about the latest proposals for a performing arts center, but that “we plan to hold an arts leadership meeting in October and hopefully talk about the plan. We’ve (numerous arts people) worked on committees and are very positive about the big plan: Miller, Imperial and PAC.”

“The conversations are beginning to get kind of serious,” Osteen says.

The timing may be perfect, too. Osteen says the Durham experience has shown that forward-thinking companies, particularly high-tech ones, want to be in urban settings today, rather than the pastoral ones developers used to customize for them.

“That’s not where the innovators want to be anymore – that’s not where the young entrepreneurial innovative-type person wants to be,” he says of the suburban-feeling corporate parks. “They want to be in an urban environment, much like what they’ve created in Durham. And much like what we have in Augusta already.

“They created a haven for high-tech startups. And now Durham is one of the magnets.”

A natural place – literally – for an Augusta PAC would be the riverfront, particularly the 17 acres of the former Golf and Gardens now owned by the state university system – though questions over ingress and egress would have to be satisfactorily answered. A partnership with Augusta’s consolidated university seems natural as well.

A PAC would likely be just the flashiest part of a larger complex that included office and commercial and even retail space. Similar space in Durham now commands some of the highest rental rates in North Carolina, Osteen says.

There are a number of ways to get this done, and the dialogue has only begun. Some communities do it with strictly private money (Greenville, S.C.). Some with strictly public (Durham). Some with a mix of each (Columbus).

The bottom line is, any self-respecting community the size of Augusta deserves a state-of-the-art performing arts center.

We owe ourselves more than talk.

We owe ourselves dialogue.

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