FITZCARRALDO: I'm doing all this because I have one dream. The opera.
The great opera in the jungle.
MOLLY: Fitzcarraldo will build it, and Caruso'll sing the premiere. It's only the dreamers who ever move mountains.

Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog


Perhaps you haven't heard, but Miami is close to breaking ground for the biggest performing arts center ever built at one time on planet Earth.

By 1996, the city's centennial, expect to see the first perfumed and well-coiffed crowds streaming out of a grand, chandeliered lobby onto Biscayne Boulevard, enraptured by performances of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, or Puccini's Tosca, or Beethoven's Eroica.

The imposing presence rising near Biscayne Bay - a $169 million temple of dance, drama, and music - will touch the depths of your soul and awe the rest of America. It will mark the final, passionate maturity of a great metropolis, transform the arts scene in Miami, enhance the value of real estate, alter patterns of commerce, and bring downtown gloriously into focus. Dade County's five main performing arts groups - the Greater Miami Opera, the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, the Miami City Ballet, the New World Symphony, and the Concert Association of Greater Miami - will have a permanent home, built to last two centuries or more.

Blue-collar worker and millionaire alike will contribute to this grand project, though it will likely be named for some elderly and extremely wealthy patron of the arts. No matter. Where a void has existed - in the cultural life of Miami, in its urban landscape, and in its collective psyche - finally there will be a center, both physical and symbolic. This gargantuan glitter dome, fruit of the greatest act of civic will in local history, could accomplish something we ask from no other collection of bricks and mortar: it could begin to heal our fractured spirit.

Or so some people believe.
It took a quarter-century of idle talk, a decade of feasibility studies and false starts, and two full years of tedious meetings to get to this point - the point where Dade County's behemoth-by-the-bay has found financing, a site, and a design configuration coherent enough to put before the nine-member Board of County Commissioners for approval, perhaps within the next 30 days.

The present plan, approved by a county advisory committee known as the Performing Arts Center Trust, calls for a vast 2700-seat opera house and a 2200-seat symphony hall. A smaller 600-to-800-seat theater might be included if the most ambitious plans are realized. Money to build and maintain the culture palace would come from $25 million in state government grants, $40 million in private donations, and some $114 million taken from Dade's seven-year-old tourist development tax, the same tax that built the Miami Arena, the Miami Beach Convention Center, and the Homestead Sports Complex.

Land for the project - 3.45 acres directly in front of the Miami Herald building - would be provided in a long-term lease by Knight-Ridder Inc., the newspaper's corporate parent. According to the plan, the arts complex would become the centerpiece of a Knight-Ridder land development scheme for the four-block area between the MacArthur and Venetian causeways east of Biscayne Boulevard. Dade's performing arts center would sit in the middle of the Knight-Ridder tract, split by a pedestrian shopping gallery, serviced by two new Metromover stations scheduled to open in 1993, and ringed by four parking lots destined to become stores or office buildings or high-rise condos sometime in the 21st Century.

The Performing Arts Center Trust, the 32-member body that gave birth to this plan, is about to be disbanded. A new nonprofit corporation is being created to direct the construction and operation of the arts center. By next month county staffers will have formally invited acousticians and theater consultants to apply for jobs overseeing the early stages of the mammoth project. Within a matter of months, the river of cash that is Dade's tourist development tax can be diverted from other civic projects and channeled toward this one. The details of a crucial interlocal tax agreement between the county and the cities of Miami and Miami Beach are nearly complete.

But just when the vision has finally gained focus and palpable momentum, a chorus of critics has vowed to sabotage the accepted plan. They say - loudly - that the Performing Arts Center Trust has been too quick to trade an ugly parcel of free land for a role in Knight-Ridder's real estate development scenario. They call the present blueprint absurdly grandiose and patently elitist, a recipe for financial and architectural disaster, poisoned with hubris and fundamentally misguided from the start.

"It's like a bunch of hillbillies from the Ozarks deciding they want a Lincoln Continental when they can't afford to feed their kids," proclaims Seth Gordon, chairman of the New World School of the Arts and a dissaffected former member of the Trust. "We've got women dying because they have to wait months to get cancer treatment at Jackson Hospital. We have armies of homeless people camped out under our bridges. That's what will immediately strike the general public when they look at this plan. They're going to say, `What the hell is this? What have these people been smoking? Where have they been?' Well, where they've been is off in a hermetically sealed bubble thinking delusional thoughts. Incredible thoughts."

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