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Groundbreak Day

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

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Rob Bartlett

Texas' reputation for heft was realized with the erection of the $354 million AT&T Center, which broke ground in 2005 during a fundraising binge and opened its doors in October 2009 with few donations still trickling in. (Donations and grants spiked in 2007 at $67 million.) It was supposed to "polish the city's image," according to early reports. In its first year of operations, the center's expenses were estimated to be around $25 million, with about $5 million of that coming from donations or sponsorships.

According to a January 2010 interview with the center's chief financial officer, Randy Kurtz, in the Dallas Morning News, donations had "virtually stopped" upon the center's opening. Several major donors pulled out. The city of Dallas issued $150 million in bonds toward the center in 2008 and will ultimately take the title to the performing arts complex. Dallas also contributes $2.5 million to the center for operations. By the end of its first year open, the AT&T Center had lost "millions of dollars" according to local media reports.

"It's not a concern," the executive director of the Dallas Arts District told the local ABC affiliate in September. "I mean, none of us want to say that we have a loss, but indeed this is a projected loss."

Though the AT&T Center continues to thrive on the surface – the 2011-2012 Lexus Broadway Series will feature touring Broadway productions of Hair, In the Heights and Green Day's American Idiot, among others – even the city acknowledges that the high-cost life of a performing arts center doesn't suit all local arts groups. In 2012, the city will open the 750-seat City Performance Hall nearby, having issued $40 million in bonds to fund its construction. Though it hasn't even opened its doors yet, the local arts community is already decrying the project's mismanagement.


At the beginning of a now prescient 2003 email from Ramsberger to Orlando city staff, she quotes Lawrence Goldman, NJPAC's former CEO and president, twice as a prelude to numerically presenting the center's financial model: "The bigger the idea, the easier the fundraising," and "Fund things by what they attract, not cost."

In the case of Newark, a major airport hub for New York City, a case could be made for dreaming big. The experiment worked, but it took a long time. First proposed in 1986 as a suitable home for the local orchestra, symphony, opera, dance and theater groups in need of one, the center's history reads suspiciously like Orlando's present. The NJPAC nonprofit was established in 1988, appointing Goldman as its president in 1989. From the outset, the board was aware that constructing a full project might be a financial drain, so it decided to build it in two phases, beginning with a large hall and a small theater to be designed by architect Barton Myers (DPAC's architect as well). By the time it opened, $60 million had come from public donations and $125 million from federal, state and city contributions. Its opening night gala in 1997 featured Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis, among others, and it was aired on PBS.

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