Thursday, December 21, 2006

A New Theater

In 18 months Durham will have a brand-new, 2,800 seat, professionally managed theater for the performing arts. It will be Durham’s 14th but arguably in a class of its own.

The good news is it will be a joy to promote and market to visitors; PFM/Nederlander has already proven an excellent partner, it will keep some Durhamites from leaving Durham for certain shows and will be a tool to help draw visitors and it will finish off the southern part of Downtown Durham, already home to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, American Tobacco Campus, Diamond View I, and two national historic landmarks (Old Bull Building and the Lucky Strike smokestack).

The new facility presents challenges that are equally significant. It will require drawing three lodging room nights for every one it has the potential to generate, in order to pay the debt service. No matter how much effort is put into “raising all boats in the harbor,” it will divert some business from existing theaters and other leisure facilities and activities. Getting patrons to come early and stay after in restaurants will be complicated by the commute people will make in this region from work, then back to theater and back home again, and getting them to walk to and from other parts of Downtown will prove as complicated as it does now for the ballpark.

All in all it’s a major plus. But beyond the first few years when everyone will come just to see the facility, like they did for DBAP, the easy part is behind us and the hard part yet to come…make it sustainable and, at the same time, make existing cultural facilities sustainable... and develop a much more coherent decision process and funding mechanism for future cultural needs.

Is the theater a great thing?…yes. Was it creatively developed?…yes. Was a lot learned to improve the process?...not yet, people are still playing offense and defense. Now the real work begins. Can we put aside personalities and stop the finger pointing at people who raised good, although uncomfortable, questions and seriously sit down together to make this all work?

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