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NEWS

Groundbreak Day

Orlando breaks ground on its performing arts center. Now what?

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Rob Bartlett


The ballerina is missing her head.

It's the first thing you notice when you look at the hastily issued electronic invitation to the very public groundbreaking of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The extravaganza, scheduled for June 23, marks the latest in a series of controversial chapters befalling a struggling public-private partnership to bring world-class culture to Orlando, come hell or high anxiety. What was once a $383 million multi-pronged project designed to be an arts hub for regional residents of all economic stripes is now a $202 million headless compromise.

What the city is celebrating is a 2,700-seat Broadway theater, a 300-seat black-box theater and ample space for uncertainty. In 2009, the arts component of the project – the 1,700-seat acoustic theater meant to house resident arts groups from the local opera to the symphony and ballet – was shelved indefinitely by DPAC, the nonprofit established more than five years ago to make the center a reality. Even though it was the strongest selling point for the 2007 venues deal that included the now-standing $480 million Amway Center (which hemorrhaged an estimated $1.5 million in its first six months open) and $175 million in Citrus Bowl upgrades (that have yet to happen), the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts has yet to materialize. The education component, meant to be housed in the complex and used as an outreach to children who don't typically have access to fine arts, is now the stuff of ambitious fiction; it may happen, but it also might just be an empty room in the existing First United Methodist Church building on premises – a building the city spent $30 million to acquire.

If you listen to the prevailing wisdom of the chattering booster class, the abridged version of the Phillips Center remains a vital institution, an economic driver that will prove that Orlando is more than just a family tourism hangover straddling the I-4 corridor.

Even overlooking the fact that people rarely travel to see traveling Broadway productions – shows which are likely to be the bread and butter of the center's operational core – the estimated $200 million in economic impact it is supposed to bring in during its first year of operation (probably 2014) comes off as a stretch. The truth is, according to industry leaders, nobody knows what is going to happen.

What we do know, however, is even less comforting. In the last six months, the project has gotten substantially harder for DPAC staff. A January request that the county come up with a $30 million portion of the $130 million in funding initially expected from the tourism tax prompted a damning pseudo-audit of DPAC operations to date that revealed unseemly wheeling and dealing with the contracted companies. DPAC head Kathy Ramsberger has been relegated to near silence as a new nonprofit comprised of bigwigs from the county, city, the Orlando Magic and Disney – called the Orlando Community Construction Corporation – was thrown together to force the fragmented project to meet its May 23 construction deadline. The move worked (after $16 million in letters of credit were issued via some particularly strident boosters), and now all – including the free lunches, the free car rentals, the upscale party life of a tireless fundraiser – is apparently forgiven. How's that for stagecraft?

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