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Three Upper Midwest performing arts centers are compared with Confluence Project proposal

Posted March 6th, 2014

  • Confluence project

By Eric Lindquist

Courtesy of the Leader-Telegram

Community performing arts centers, when done right, offer tremendous potential as catalysts for downtown revitalization and an avenue to improve quality of life for residents.

That's the consensus of civic leaders in three medium-sized cities in Wisconsin and Minnesota that have built arts centers in recent years.

All three had to overcome at least some public skepticism, however. While the building designs, price tags and funding sources vary widely, officials from Appleton, Fond du Lac and Burnsville, Minn., all expressed pride in their relatively new arts centers and wished Eau Claire well in its own quest to determine if the community should follow a similar path.

    

Eau Claire's proposed $77.2 million Confluence Project - which includes a performing arts center, student housing and a commercial development near where the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers meet - faces a key fork in the road on April 1. That's when voters will consider city and county referendums that would affect local government contributions to the project's $51.2 million performing arts center.The county referendum will askresidents simply if they support the county giving $3.5 million to help build the Confluence Project arts center, but the city referendum is more complex. It will ask residents if the city should hold a referendum before spending $1 million or more to build an arts center.

Officials from the other communities acknowledged that community arts centers can spark drama - both on and off the stage - especially when public money is required to build or operate the facilities. But Eau Claire isn't confronted with a blank canvas. Other cities have been there, done that and survived to see the curtain rise on arts centers that entertain and educate their residents.

The Leader-Telegram sought out leaders of other regional performing arts centers to give Eau Claire residents a behind-the-scenes look at how the process played out in those cities.sought out leaders of other regional performing arts centers to give Eau Claire residents a behind-the-scenes look at how the process played out in those cities.

 

APPLETON

The $45 million Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, which opened in downtown Appleton in November 2002 to rave reviews, put the spotlight on private fundraising. The center, similar in size to what has been proposed in Eau Claire, was funded almost entirely by private contributions from more than 2,700 local residents and businesses, including an $8 million gift from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and a $3 million donation from Kimberly-Clark Corp. Fourteen Fox Valley municipalities, representing a metro area of 380,000 people, also dedicated $8 million in hotel room taxes to the construction of the center, according to its promotional documents.

Of the $51.2 million estimated cost of the performing arts center in Eau Claire, Confluence Project backers are seeking a total of $35 million from state, county and city government. The rest of the construction costs would come from donations and new market tax credits, according to the developers. Appleton Mayor Timothy Hanna recalled that he established early on he didn't want the city to be involved in ownership of the center. He advocated for the city's role to be limited to site acquisition, parking and infrastructure, and ultimately the city spent $4.2 million, or a little less than 10 percent of the center's total cost, in those areas.

The center receives no operating subsidy from the city, but instead has an ongoing fundraising campaign that generates nearly $2 million a year to fund operations, including a program that aims to get all children within a 50-mile radius to see a show for little or no cost, he said. "The money we've raised from the community, it's incredible," Hanna said. "But because we've done it that way, the community takes ownership in that facility." As a nonprofit organization, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, doesn't pay property taxes, which prompted questions among some residents about what return the city would receive from its investment. Hanna acknowledged at the time that the payback would be difficult to define. "I said intuitively I knew that it would raise the value of properties around it and bring more development to downtown," Hanna said. Indeed, his prediction has come true, as the mayor reported that property values in downtown Appleton rose 32 percent in the first few years after the center opened on a formerly dilapidated block of downtown. In addition, the center has attracted several new businesses, including a boutique hotel, to downtown and improved sales at existing businesses. "That's a good thing for Appleton," said Hanna, who has been the city's mayor for 18 years.

The impact on the city's reputation and quality of life has been at least as dramatic, the mayor said, rattling off an impressive list of touring Broadway shows that have lit up the stage at the center's 2,100-seat Thrivent Financial Hall. Among the shows generating the most enthusiastic receptions were "Wicked," "The Lion King," "Jersey Boys" and "Mama Mia.""It has literally put us on the map, especially within the entertainment and Broadway community," Hanna said, asserting that cast and crew members routinely talk about how impressed they are with the center, the community and Fox Valley residents.

Still, the proposal to build the center sparked considerable controversy, Hanna recalled, with some critics claiming it wasn't necessary because people who wanted to take in large theater or music productions could do so at UW-Green Bay's Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.But resistance to the Appleton center, which hosts more than 400 events per year, mostly has faded away as its reputation has spread. Its website indicates 169,453 patrons attended a ticketed performance in the 2012-13 season."It has been years now since I've heard anybody say it was a waste of public money," Hanna said, although he noted that some still question whether the center sucked money away from other nonprofit arts organizations. For many residents, including Hanna, the center is a source of great community pride."I can honestly say when I walk into that building, I still get goose bumps," Hanna said. "It truly is a world-class facility."

BURNSVILLE

The backstory is completely different for the $20 million Burnsville Performing Arts Center, which was paid for entirely by the city of Burnsville and opened in January 2009. The gleaming, glass-dominated venue, which is a little more than half the size of the arts center proposed as part of the Confluence Project, generated considerable controversy because of its public funding, said Kelly Strey, the city's financial accounting director. Despite the resistance, Burnsville City Council members decided to plow ahead with the project.

"Their thought process was that it's funding for an amenity in the city similar to our parks and our ice center," Strey said. "They felt the benefit derived from the arts center and the business it would bring in was worth it."
Unfortunately for the city, the dream of a community arts center became a reality at the same time the Great Recession turned the economy into a nightmare, causing many residents to curtail discretionary spending on luxuries such as concert and play tickets. "Their thought process was that it's funding for an amenity in the city similar to our parks and our ice center," Strey said. "They felt the benefit derived from the arts center and the business it would bring in was worth it."

Unfortunately for the city, the dream of a community arts center became a reality at the same time the Great Recession turned the economy into a nightmare, causing many residents to curtail discretionary spending on luxuries such as concert and play tickets."We couldn't have timed that worse," Strey said.Still, though the economy stole some of the luster from the grand opening, the center's annual operating deficits have declined steadily, from $547,000 the first year to the current level of about $160,000, said executive director Brian Luther."This business has done tremendous," said Luther, an employee of management company VenuWorks. "We continue to grow, to reduce our operational subsidy and to book more events all the time."

While critics charge that the continued need for subsidies means the center isn't a successful stand-alone business, Luther said that ignores the facility's importance to local residents and businesses."I feel the center is very important for the community," Luther said. "It adds to the quality of life, it embraces arts and entertainment, and it really does help surrounding businesses," particularly hotels and restaurants.Operating on the southern edge of the Twin Cities metro area, the center has a large population to draw from but also faces intense competition from established venues in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

As a result, the Burnsville Performing Arts Center has settled into a niche in which it does particularly well with musical performances - attracting the likes of Michael Bolton, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby - and dance competitions for all ages, Luther said."We're working hard to fill our space, and now we have only a few dark weekends a year," he said, adding that the center targets weddings, banquets and class reunions to keep revenue coming in during slow times such as January and July.The city recently granted naming rights to Ames Construction of Burnsville in exchange for a pledge of $1 million over 10 years, so the facility soon will change its name to the Ames Center.

It's the latest example of how the center is heading in the right direction after a bit of a rocky start, Luther said."For the most part, I think people have seen the value of it," he said. "There's really not a negative tone in the community anymore."

FOND DU LAC

The rise of the arts center in downtown Fond du Lac was a multistep process, beginning with the Fond du Lac Arts Council buying the former Masonic Temple in 1995.After a capital campaign and renovation, the center was renamed Windhover Center for the Arts, in recognition of support from Quad Graphics charitable arm The Windhover Foundation.But though the center hosted more than 200 events a year, it never resonated with local residents as much as local arts advocates hoped and had taken on significant debt by the time Kevin Miller was hired as executive director in 2007. Miller - who shared the center's story during a speech last week in Eau Claire at Downtown Eau Claire Inc.'s annual awards program - was part of a group that proposed expanding the Fond du Lac arts center and making it the centerpiece of a downtown arts and entertainment district.

Initially, local residents thought the idea was outrageous, Miller said, but the concept gained support when a major employer announced plans to close up shop, and then the idea of creating an arts district to make the city a more attractive place to live and to boost tourism started to make sense to people.

"It really doesn't matter if the CEO gives a rip about what kind of art you've got on the walls; he's glad it's there because (otherwise Fond du Lac-based companies) can't get their higher-ups to live here or sometimes even take the job," Miller said. The same concept applies to attracting visitors, he said, adding, "We've got the traffic zipping right by us, and we had to create reasons for people to come into Fond du Lac and invest their tourism dollars."

With support from corporate leaders, in particular the Sadoff Family Foundation, the center underwent a dramatic expansion and was renamed the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in September 2013. The $7 million center, which blends classical-style pillars from the Masonic Temple built in 1906 with modern brick and glass design elements, was funded solely by private sources, with the city's role confined to paying for development of a parking lot to serve the facility and surrounding businesses. It continues as a nonprofit that doesn't rely on public subsidies. The project already has sparked development of a new restaurant and apartment building next to the center, said community development director Wayne Rollin, and developers are exploring other projects in the area. "The arts center is bringing new life to downtown," Rollin said, explaining that Fond du Lac's city center, like many around the country, began to go downhill in the 1970s as retailers moved to the city's outskirts. The arts center, now fondly referred to by local residents as "Thelma," is a cornerstone of revitalization efforts, he said.

Miller, a member of the Wisconsin Arts Board and a believer in the economic impact of the arts, isn't surprised that Thelma has led to about $15 million in new and planned development and helped fill vacant downtown storefronts.

He is proud of the center's ability to attract people with diverse tastes, ranging from hosting art exhibits from Paris and New York's Guggenheim Museum to screening a documentary on sturgeon spearing on nearby Lake Winnebago. Though indoor performance space is limited in a venue a little more than a quarter the size of the performing arts center proposed for Eau Claire, an attendance mark was set last September when nearly 4,000 people turned out for a Montgomery Gentry concert in the street in front of Thelma."It's all designed to make the arts accessible to the community," Miller said, noting that it also has become a popular and classy spot to hold weddings. In Miller's view, Fond du Lac generally is a conservative city that is just beginning to reap the rewards of making progressive choices regarding the arts. "It is about the arts, but it's more than that. It's about business, quality of life for the community, tourism and all the way on down to jobs," he said. "You need amenities to be a cool place to live."