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Readers split on performing arts center

Readers are sharply divided on whether a new performing arts center is a key to revitalizing downtown Rochester.

Among respondents to this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll, 48 percent said a new performing arts center is important or somewhat important as a part of downtown revitalization. That result is 10 percentage points higher than six years ago, when a similar poll was conducted.

However, a majority—52 percent—disagreed in this week’s poll, with nearly one-quarter saying it is not at all important.

The latest bid for a downtown performing arts center was launched last month. On July 14, City Council approved Mayor Lovely Warren’s request for a $211,000 study to be conducted by Lincoln Center Global in partnership with Westlake Reed Leskosky.

The study will evaluate the former Renaissance Square site on East Main Street and Midtown Parcel 5 as possible locations. It also will provide a rough estimate of costs to develop the facility, project annual revenue and operational costs, and examine the potential economic impact.

“The performing arts center will be an engine for jobs, it will bring vitality to our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, and it will hold limitless educational opportunities for our city’s children,” Warren said when sending her request to City Council.

The first big push for a downtown performing arts center occurred nearly two decades ago, when Mayor William Johnson Jr. and County Executive John Doyle established a task force that identified Midtown as the prime location. When County Executive Maggie Brooks unveiled her Renaissance Square plan in January 2004, it included a performing arts center.

After Brooks declared Renaissance Square dead in 2009, the Rochester Broadway Theatre League Inc. proposed a facility at the McCurdy’s site at Midtown, but a fundraising effort failed to gain momentum.

In a June 2009 Snap Poll, conducted less than two months before Brooks pulled the plug on Renaissance Square, 63 percent of respondents said a performing arts center was not very important or not at all important for downtown revitalization.

The new study will be funded by a state grant, along with money from the city, the county and RBTL.

Nearly 665 readers participated in this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll, conducted Aug. 3 and 4.

In your view, how important is a new performing arts center as a part of downtown revitalization?

Very important  22%
Somewhat important  26%
Not very important  28%
Not at all important  24%

Over the past several years, how frequently have you attended Rochester Broadway Theatre League shows at the Auditorium Theatre?

I am an RBTL subscriber  5%
Several times a year  15%
Once a year  26%
Less than once a year  33%
Never  21%

For information on how the Snap Polls are conducted, click here.

COMMENTS:

With all of the other venues in Rochester (the Auditorium Theatre, the War Memorial, Geva, the Eastman Theatre, the Main Street Armory, the Blackfriars Theatre, and all of the other smaller venues and college and university theaters), I don’t believe there is a need for a new performing arts center. It seems to me it would be better to invest in a renovation of the Auditorium Theatre to put it in a class like Shea’s in Buffalo.
—David Belcher, LeRoy

We don’t have many opportunities for first-run movies, but downtown Rochester is the Finger Lakes region’s destination for live entertainment. Although we don’t have a well-defined theater district, we do have a “Theater Row” that includes the Auditorium, Armory, Blackfriars and Downstairs Cabaret. A short radius includes Geva Theatre, the Little and the Xerox Auditorium. A new, state-of-the-art, centrally located performing arts center could be the focal point that would create a complete Theater District. It is critical that this project includes a future plan for the Auditorium and a clear understanding of the ongoing operational costs.
—Dana Miller, vice president,
City Council

 This is a difficult topic. Culture is an important piece of civilized society, but at what cost? Does the government have the right to take tax money from the hard-working middle class and provide it for the entertainment value of a few more affluent socialites? In today’s age of instant information (like this electronic poll), you can gauge public opinion. Put it to a vote and let the people who would be footing the bill decide the fate.
—Mark Williams

It’s all about the bottom line. If the taxpayer costs for such a project are less than the expected revenues and economic impact, then let’s do it. One need only look at the activity and economic benefits of the Eastman Theatre, Auditorium Theatre, jazz festival, summer arts festivals, Main Street Armory, Fringe Festival and other venues and events to realize that arts are big businesses and economic drivers in any community today.
—JP Gleason, EDA/Gleason Fundraising Consultants

I truly believe we would see positive results from this investment. Rochester and the surrounding communities have a vibrant performing arts culture; it has thrived through some harsh economic times, and will continue to thrive with the addition of this diadem to our downtown area.
—Lou Calarese, president, Applied Audio & Theatre Supply

Having a downtown art center will do nothing to revitalize blighted downtown as no one feels safe going down there. Cut taxes and encourage business and job development along with decreasing crime—(that) will help downtown.
—Chuck Wells, Wells Insurance

It’s a game of need vs. want. We have the world-class Eastman Theatre, Kilbourn Hall, the Auditorium Theatre, the War Memorial, Geva, and several small theaters such as the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre. Some are already underutilized such as the Eastman Theatre. How many more venues do we really need?
—Rich Calabrese Jr., Rochester

A performing arts center can be a highlight for the blighted downtown area. However, it is not a savior on its own. Theatergoers will come and go; they will need a reason to come early and/or stay late. Other options to anchor the downtown area are needed so that a diverse group of people will frequent downtown. When you look at other cities that have a vital downtown, it is because there are many options such as restaurants, comedy clubs, boutiques, jazz clubs, coffee shops, dessert bar, movie theater, etc.
—Ruby Austin

This is the bad idea that just won’t die. Since the last go-around at Main and Clinton, the community has added the Theatre on the Ridge and the East Avenue Church to the public theater supply. The Rochester Broadway Theatre League will use it maybe 60 days a year—then what? Who will pay the massive operating deficits it will incur? Don’t look at the taxpayers!
—Paul E. Haney

The people that do come downtown for RBTL events have been doing so already, so a new theater won’t change anything. The Auditorium Theatre building could be improved for significantly less money than new construction as it was several years ago. Also, it sits smack in the Neighborhood of the Arts where it belongs. The possible site in the middle of downtown is best used for (a building) where people can work every day. The daily people traffic of such use is what will make a difference for a downtown site because the workers will take advantage of other services daily vs. brief visits by theatre attendees. Another possible option for the RBTL stage is the Theatre on the Ridge. This former Kodak facility is very big and in significantly better condition than the Auditorium and has tons of parking already in place.
—Bob Volpe

A waste of money. How can the mayor or (county executive) justify this when our roads and bridges are falling apart? If they can’t take care of Rochester’s necessities due to lack of funds, then how and why is it they can get the funds for something that Rochester really does not need?
—Cindy Bailey

I seem to remember this kind of question, oh, say, 15 years ago. One thing about Rochester that is remarkably predictable: we study everything to death, for years, even decades, and if something should break out of the pack we do it in such a way it’s hopelessly compromised (e.g., the transit center, which was originally designed to be larger and more secure until City Council and Bob Duffy meddled and forced its redesign to what it is today). If we had done Ren Square as Maggie Brooks had envisioned it (and had it paid for largely with federal funds), we wouldn’t be asking about the wisdom of building a downtown theater 10 years later (killing Ren Square was another Bob Duffy mistake). Sometimes I think the primary mission of our elected officials is to screw up each other’s projects, just so we can keep debating them another 10 years.
—Bob Sarbane

Make it happen, keep it downtown, seat 3,000-plus, parking must be close, of quality construction/beautiful, staffed by experienced folks, marketed by the best firm in Rochester. Only with this best-foot effort, can we truly bring our wonderful deep-rooted cultured city back. The addition of a movie theatre 6+, with parking, also should happen downtown.
—Ted Voll, Jr.

Seriously, do the arithmetic. There is not enough money in Rochester performances of big theater productions to cover the operating expenses of a new performing arts center. Further, the subsidies required to build and keep such a PAC operating will dilute the grants (subsidies) currently keeping RPO, Geva and RBTL afloat. RBTL has much lower-cost options available.
—Dorver Kendig, Webster

We already have Geva, the existing Auditorium Theatre, and numerous neighborhood festivals, the Rochester jazz fest, to say nothing of the Blue Cross arena. As a suburban resident, I just don’t see Rochester being able to support more entertainment venues.
—Wayne Donner

This community has several avenues for theater and great options for everyone. We do not have enough interest or a large enough population to support Broadway theater. The fact the city continues to spend money to conduct more studies is disappointing. What will this do to Geva and the Auditorium Theatre? Personally, I would love to see more done with the space around Dinosaur BBQ and the new park there, along with the Aqueduct. The other area to continue expansion is High Falls. These are world-class assets not being utilized that would drive tourism and spur further development.
—Keith Newcomer

If they tear down the dilapidated buildings at Main/Clinton and put it there, it will be a step forward for downtown revitalization. If they put it in the empty space at Midtown, it will be a step backwards. Private business has shown no interest in revitalizing the Neisner etc. buildings in decades. Private business will build in the empty space at Midtown if given time.
—Cliff Milligan

Making downtown safer is the number one priority for revitalization. I live 18 miles east of Rochester, partially because of all the violence in and around the Rochester area. We have violence in Wayne County, but thankfully not on the scale of Rochester.
—Brenda Jackson

Personally, I believe it should be downtown, as one more reason to redevelop downtown. Is it a “key”? No way, and the funding should be borne by those using it, not the taxpayer.
—JA DePaolis

We need something to increase crowd interest in downtown. We already have growing residential interest. We don’t want to compete with the Eastman Theatre, the Little (no multiplex movie theatre), and all the great small live theatres downtown. And we certainly don’t want a casino or anything else like it that’s going to attract crime and disorder. If there are no other suggestions, then let’s focus on this renewed effort!
—Ken Maher

Unless a performing arts center is used frequently, then it will be a large, hulking (and, indeed, derelict) presence in downtown the vast majority of the time. I would be less concerned about this fact if the building were located on the periphery of downtown (like the War Memorial, for example), but its presence on Main Street would be unfortunate. I also am concerned about the likely need for significant local operating subsidies, which will bleed funds from social and other infrastructure needs.
—Greg Franklin

This train left the station about 20 years ago when the Wilmots offered to build a casino and the performing arts center and pay for it themselves. Now we’re looking to get government money—in other words, your money and my money. I was taught the difference between nice and necessary. The new performing arts center is nice and the Auditorium Theatre is necessary.
—Clifford Jacobson, MD

Fairly or unfairly, people can develop a public identity. I could never trust any project that Arnie Rothschild is associated with, after the fiasco with the signage at the airport, regardless of the “spin.”
—Jerry McCabe, Irondequoit

Rochester died over 20 years ago. Anything new should be built in Charlotte. Can anyone say waterfront???
—Dave Kaspersin, president, Dynamic Recording Studios, Greece

The performing arts center is key to revitalization of downtown Rochester. Having the center in downtown Rochester will bring more tourism dollars to Rochester. We already have top-notch hotels, restaurants, shopping and trendy neighborhoods.
—Donald Swartz, downtown resident

I find it interesting that its takes over $200,000 to figure out where the mayor wants it? What happened to the marina project? City screw-ups made it just another hole in the ground. What’s going to make this evaluation any different?
—Dan Zarpentine

I have been an RBTL usher for 10+ years. A new and bigger auditorium is needed in order to bring new and bigger Broadway shows to Rochester. However, I’m concerned about a downtown location. Since I live in the 19th Ward, almost at corner of Thurston and Chili, and since the Inner Loop is no longer an option, it takes me sometimes 25 minutes to get from home to the auditorium on Fridays between 5:30 and 6:00 PM. As most of Main Street is literally only one lane in each direction, RBTL traffic could be a nightmare. If Main Street could be a four-lane road, I would be all in favor of a downtown site.
—Julie Doescher

Rochester known for its theater and arts, no matter how big or small. Redevelopment of downtown is vital for not only business but the population to learn and grow.
—David Post

8/7/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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