We are totally late on this one, folks. We didn’t believe it ourselves at first. It seems that an important, sobering, honest and thought-provoking essay on Richmond’s arts center controversy actually appeared in this past Sunday’s Times-Dispatch op-ed section.
No, sillies, we aren’t talking about this (although that nod to reality is indeed noteworthy). We’re talking about John Gerner’s piece, “We Can’t Assume Anything About Richmond’s Thalhimer’s Block.”
Get this guest editorialist Gerner is a Richmond resident who actually makes his living advising entertainment complexes and “leisure projects” nationwide on their feasability. Gee, we wouldn’t want to talk with someone like him right now, would we?
Gerner’s analysis was written before recent events. But since the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation failed to commission a single independent feasibility study for their project, his neutral assessment (written in that bullet point style we expect from someone in the consulting profession) is must-reading or at least a conversation starting-point for any handpicked corporate committee serious about righting past mistakes and getting the lights turned back on at the Carpenter Center.
Mr. Gerner writes:
For more than 20 years, I’ve been a land-use economist evaluating leisure projects, including new performing arts centers. As a Richmonder, I’ve also been following the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation (VPAF) situation with personal interest and have commented before in Times-Dispatch articles.
There are major assumptions underlying recent statements about the future of the Thalhimers block that need to be discussed. They are:
–That a new multi-purpose theater is the best use of this property.
In my research, I’ve yet to find any analysis on the highest and best use of the Thalhimers block. How do we really know that the proposed multi-purpose theater would be the best way that this property can help downtown? Let’s conduct this evaluation before making any more decisions concerning this important part of our city’s future.
–That a new multi-purpose theater will ever be built.
Earlier this year, the Carpenter Center’s previous owner transferred its theater to the VPAF, the City of Richmond had given more than $7 million, and the arts groups put their future in jeopardy. All did so without requiring a guarantee in return. Why didn’t the foundation take similar risks?
Had it secured a construction loan that later would be paid back by its pledges, construction activity on the Thalhimers block site would now look much like the neighboring new Federal Courts Building. Instead, the VPAF’s reliance on the safer pay-as-you-go approach reduced the likelihood of the new theater ever being built from probable to only possible.
Future development is now contingent on major additional private funding, which has not happened under this uncertainty. At this time, there are no assurances concerning the future of the new multi-purpose theater and no decisions should be made based on such conditional plans.
–That the Carpenter Center will ever reopen.
A fundamental rule of development is: Don’t break ground until the financing is in place. This seemed to be the case last January when the foundation announced the closing of the Carpenter Center and the beginning of its renovation that same month. The VPAF assured the theater’s previous owner that “even in an unrealistic, worst-case scenario” the foundation would “still have $23 million in cash, pledges, and tax credits to cover $21 million in remaining hard costs.” It had a valid demolition permit, issued after Mayor Douglas Wilder took office, yet little work occurred. Months later, the Mayor began publicly asking questions. The stop work order was issued in August, seven months after construction was to begin and a month after the original demolition permit had expired. Why did the foundation allow this window of opportunity to close?
The result has been a vicious cycle of financial uncertainty followed by controversy that further feeds the uncertainty.
With no reopening date in sight, there is no practical reason for keeping this wonderful theater closed. The Carpenter Center should be quickly reopened and the planned expansion redesigned to minimize the time the center would need to be closed again in the future.
The VPAF has said many times that a major new theater would greatly help downtown Richmond. If this is so, then a much-delayed or permanently closed Carpenter Center would greatly hurt downtown.
–That the foundation absolutely owns the Thalhimers block.
We all know that the foundation currently legally owns the property. As with most things in life, however, there are no absolutes. If a family understands that they no longer may own their own home if it stands in the way of a needed highway, can the foundation say it absolutely owns the Thalhimers block if there is a greatly needed public use for it?
In the end, the above considerations are more important than the foundation’s goal of controlling its own destiny. And should be. No private group should have the final say concerning what our community does with a part of itself, regardless of the stature of the individuals involved. As individuals, we all have to leave someday. Only the community survives. As our personal legacy, let’s continue to work together to make Richmond the best it can be. I hope this is one assumption we can still make.