Screwing up the Center

Years behind schedule and way over budget, the performing arts center is another Miami miracle

A quarter-century after a group was formed to study the idea of a center for the arts, even some of its creators are angry. After all Broward County planned, constructed, and opened a magnificent $58 million hall on the New River in only a decade. And Palm Beach County finished its $55 million building in less than fifteen years. "I just want to see the damn thing built," comments Alvah Chapman, who this past January announced his retirement from the board of Knight Ridder. "I don't know what is taking so long."

When the idea for a performing arts center was born in the 1970s, Parker Thomson assisted in the delivery. Back then his hair was brown, not gray; he was slimmer; and his shoulders were a little broader and straighter. But one thing has remained constant: his passionate dedication to getting the structure built. Thomson conservatively estimates that he has volunteered ten hours per week as an advocate for the center during the last decade, which equals about two and a half years of full-time work.

The center's ambiance will include exhaust fumes from Biscayne Boulevard and a two-block trek for parking
Steve Satterwhite
The center's ambiance will include exhaust fumes from Biscayne Boulevard and a two-block trek for parking
"The public sector doesn't particularly move fast," admits PACT chairman Parker Thomson
Steve Satterwhite
"The public sector doesn't particularly move fast," admits PACT chairman Parker Thomson

Thomson was born in Troy, New York, in 1932. He attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and began practicing law in Boston in the 1950s. Retreating from the cutthroat competition of the Northeast, he arrived in Miami in 1961. Ironically the attorney does not consider himself an arts devotee. He attends some cultural events but has grander reasons for supporting the center. He contends Miami will not be taken seriously until it is built. "There is no great city in the world that is not a dynamic city culturally," the six-foot-tall lawyer argues in a soft, deliberate voice. "The center will help us get there."

In 1976 he became the first chairman of the Council of Arts and Sciences, an appointed citizens board created to advise the county commission on arts-related issues. In 1978 the group began to champion the idea of a single location to host operas and symphony concerts, Thomson recalls.

In 1982 the rhetoric turned to action, when county leaders approved a referendum for a penny sales tax that included about $30 million for a performing arts center. But in a strategic error that would prove a harbinger, politics became an obstacle to the project's progress. The measure was paired on the ballot with an unpopular scheme to build a new stadium for the Miami Dolphins. Voters killed it by a 3-1 margin. A month later City of Miami residents quashed a similar proposal pushed by Mayor Maurice Ferre. (Although Broward voters rejected a similar measure that year, the county regrouped two years later, formed a committee to plan the project, and opened the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in 1991.)

Thomson left the arts council in 1982, but the group didn't surrender. In November 1983 its members evaluated three proposed sites for a performing arts center: the government center complex on NW First Street; a tract north of Bayside, where the new AmericanAirlines Arena now stands; and Watson Island, where Parrot Jungle and additional cruise terminals may soon be built. The council had no concept of the problems they would face. "This may take six or even ten years," the group's executive director Kenneth Kahn told the Miami Herald in 1983.

Next came the studies. The county, the City of Miami, and arts backers commissioned five of them between 1983 and 1988 at an estimated cost of $500,000 to taxpayers. Why so many? Competing interests. The arts patrons sought a scenic waterfront locale. Watson Island, Bicentennial Park, and the Miami River were their preferred sites. On the other side of the debate was the business community, which considered the building a potential catalyst for development. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and prominent real estate attorney Phillip Yaffa suggested areas like Overtown, the west side of Biscayne Boulevard near Bayside, and the Omni neighborhood.

In 1988 Metro-Dade Mayor Steve Clark and Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez appointed a committee to settle the question. Its seven members included luminaries such as CenTrust Bank chairman (and later convicted felon) David Paul, Knight Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman, and Parker Thomson. The group quickly settled on Bicentennial Park. They intended to lobby commissioners for the site, and Chapman suggested the Herald's editorial board favored the move.

Then on April 28, 1988, the weekly Miami Today published a story that questioned the committee's tactics. The panel had not advertised its meetings, an apparent violation of the state's Sunshine Law. The committee disbanded shortly after publication of the article, which the Miami Herald parroted ten days later. (Chapman does not recall details of the meetings and there is no record of law-enforcement authorities studying the matter.) The embarrassing episode led the county commission to create a new 25-member citizens' group to oversee site selection. Thomson became chairman.

In 1989 the citizens group selected six sites, including the Knight Ridder property on Biscayne Boulevard and NE Thirteenth Street. A year later members unanimously approved the Knight Ridder tract. The choice ignited a firestorm of criticism, especially on Spanish-language radio. Angry critics argued the newspaper stood to earn millions on its adjoining real estate if the site were confirmed. They termed the Herald "the monster on the Bay" and questioned its objectivity.

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