Sprint Hopes Eternal

The saying is well-known: there are three sides to every story. His side, your side, and the truth. In the interest of fairness to the theatrical community and my readers, this column will address another side of that pesky little political hotbed -- the $170-million Dade Performing Arts Center.

To recap my column of August 11, the final approved plans for the center, scheduled to open in 1998, "brazenly demonstrated that the town sees the dramatic arts as a useless leper, unworthy of anything but a backhanded toss of the most scant tidbits." The simple statistics appear to bear out this criticism. The center is slated to contain a 1900-seat symphony hall, a 2480-seat opera house, and a mere 150- to 250-seat "black box" theater.

Furthermore, even though some local theater venues would receive eight million dollars under part of the plan, these funds would not necessarily be used for such great artistic contributors as ACME and AREA Stage, who as of this writing are still scrounging for homes.

Because of that column, I was asked to meet with Michael Spring. The soft-spoken executive director of the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council and his staff are providing administrative assistance to the Performing Arts Center Trust (the ruling body for the whole project).

From Spring's standpoint, the costly, elephantine center could be a grand blessing in disguise for theaters in this area. He believes local talent will thrive rather than suffer from the county's plans. In fact, he claimed he was pleased when the county manager's office asked his agency to get involved. "We took the job partly so we could put our imprint on the plans," he said, "and I feel we have."

First he emphasized that the center will not cost $170 million in public funds, as I may have implied in my earlier column. The project actually will take $130 million in taxpayer money, and the Trust hopes to raise another $40 million or more from private contributors. Then Spring eagerly went on to name three ways in which the Center will enhance rather than subtract from the life of drama in Miami:

1. Local theater companies can benefit through renting the opera house facility at a 50 percent discount. "Three years ago I wouldn't even have suggested this," Spring contended. "But now with larger groups such as the Miami Skyline undertaking more ambitious programs, and with the theater community growing in leaps and bounds, anything is possible, especially if we're looking at ten or so years from now." Spring expects that theaters can find an ideal showcase by renting this state-of-the-art 2480-seat space because it will "cost no more than existing larger spaces such as Gusman Center for the Performing Arts or the Dade County Auditorium."

2. As for smaller shows, he stressed that the black box theater is design-ed to be flexible (meaning, the stage and seating can berearranged) for many kinds of groups, and again will be no more expensive to rent than existing smaller spaces such as the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. "About $250 to $300 per night is very reasonable for this brand new, excellently equipped venue," Spring said. He envisions a time when three or four local groups may share the space on a permanent basis, which would reduce rental costs even further. "For example," he continued, "ACME's New Play Festival could always take place there in the summer. A major production of the Hispanic Theater Festival could be featured in the black box during that time."

3. Built into the plan for the Performing Arts Center are two separate cash funds to benefit local theater. The first, "The Existing Facilities Plan," provides eight million dollars to refurbish venues that are rented out by other groups and that are strategically located throughout the county. The funds, Spring argued, will also help rebuild facilities that would otherwise suffer from the construction of the center: "The Dade County Auditorium will lose the opera, but with improved lighting and sound, they hope to attract diverse folkloric dance groups. Gusman needs stage and backstage work to properly house the new Miami Skyline Theater."

Besides Gusman and the auditorium, other facilities benefiting from this boon include the Manuel Artime Center in Little Havana, Actors' Playhouse in Kendall, Colony Theater on Lincoln Road, Joseph Caleb Auditorium and African Heritage Cultural Arts Center on NW 22nd Avenue, Lyric Theater in Overtown, Shores Performing Arts Theatre in Miami Shores, and Goodlet Park Theatre/Milander Auditorium in Hialeah.

But that's not all. Spring added that an additional $2.75 million, dispersed over a period of seven years, is earmarked for the Cultural Affairs Council to spend on the same and other existing facilities. "This is a marvelous evolution of thinking," he said, regarding the county's recognition of the value of theater.

"What is truly peculiar in the best sense," Spring asserted, "is that out of the discussions for this performing arts center came an awareness on the part of many municipalities, such as Miami Beach and Coral Gables, that they needed to support theater companies such as ACME and AREA Stage. A community consciousness about all the performing arts has been raised."

Spring believes that if all goes according to plan, most arts groups will gain exposure and funds because of the new center. "If you look carefully around," he stated with a smile, "we're on our way to a thriving theater community."

To boost the argument even further, he related an anecdote about the Trust's fine intentions. It seems the group sacrificed office space for the ballet, symphony, and opera, all for the sake of drama. "If we built them offices, there could be no black box theater," Spring explained. "They unanimously chose the theater."

My answer to Spring? Hope and a positive attitude are not bad things, and many people in the theater community -- even those once opposed to the proposal -- feel that the final approved plan includes some good concessions. However, the full truth still hasn't emerged, so Spring's arguments still warrant some additional criticism.

First, the center may cost $130 million from here and $40 million from there, but it will still cost $170 million. Many people fear that all available cultural funds will be sucked dry by this demand. Furthermore, readers should understand that though these funds are expected, few signed checks sit in anyone's bank. Many of Spring's good intentions might fly out the window if the grants fall short of expectations and if, for example, the black box can't be built correctly, or at all.

As for his three-point contention, each argument bears closer examination.
1. Does anyone believe that a local theater group needs or wants to rent a 2480-seat hall, even at a 50 percent discount? The only group Spring mentioned is the Miami Skyline Theater. They already are the resident company of Gusman and they haven't produced a show. Venues this large rarely suit any type of drama or musical other than road shows. While I hope theater produced in our area some day reaches such gargantuan proportions, I also hope to win $50 million one day from the lottery.

2. The idea of sharing the black box theater is nothing new, but it does have inherent problems. An ongoing company such as ACME needs a permanent space to call home; they must have a shop and a stable address. "Floater" companies such as Lunatic Theatre aspire to their own venue, not a share or a one-time deal. And if too many small companies book this space, it will be hard to find time in the schedule for a local theater to rent it on reasonably short notice for a special performance.

3. The money expected to be raised for the project isn't in the Trust's hands, yet. Of course, the eight million dollars projected to be spent on local theaters is a reasonable amount. It appears to be fair even to Seth Gordon, an ex-member of the Performing Arts Center Trust and a vocal opponent of the first plans who had requested 20 million dollars for that purpose. I, too, have no problem with this provision, or with the additional $2.75 million. The questions are: Once again, can we be sure the money is coming in? And does the Dade County Auditorium really believe that the loss of the opera will be compensated by booking folkloric dance? That's a lot of polkas.

Finally, as far as the Trust's fine intentions, these were certainly recent changes of heart. The black box was not a sure thing when this plan got rolling; the Grinch just decided to give back Christmas. And the millions in promised outlays for existing venues resulted from media and political pressure, as well as cultural awareness on the part of Spring and Co. In addition, the office-space gesture seems sweet but small.

Hence the cliffhanger keeps going and going. Will all those checks come in the mail? Will local theater groups gain, or will they find every cent of local cash funneling into the center and nothing remaining in the coffers to help them? Will local theatrical culture benefit mightily from the project, or will we own a huge white elephant that caters purely to more road shows and concerts from out of town?

Obviously, all these facets of the $170- million question will be answered after the center's scheduled opening five years from now.


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