Whoooooosh. That’s the sound of Lansing Township leaving the city of Lansing in the dust on the goal of creating a performing arts center.
On Oct. 1, construction is set to start on a 12,000-square-foot, 1,500-capacity performing arts venue at Eastwood Towne Center in Lansing Township.
It’s a similar concept that city officials have hoped to bring downtown for nearly 20 years — across three mayoral administrations — to no avail.
Very few, if any, disagree that the greater Lansing area could use a mid-sized performing arts center to fill a niche somewhere between the Wharton Center and Mac’s Bar or Riverwalk Theatre. In the mid-1990s, former Lansing Mayor David Hollister actively pursued such a venue to be located in what is now the Stadium District, but those plans never got beyond the proposal stage. A second attempt roughly 10 years later by the city, Cooley Law School and Lansing Community College met the same fate.
Those tied to the Eastwood plan largely chalk it up as a win for the region, not as a setback for downtown Lansing. But does a venue on the far north side of Ingham County contribute to bringing more people downtown?
At least one vocal critic — not just of the venue, but of Eastwood all together — is Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. He says the suburban development draws people away from the region’s core: downtown Lansing. And a performing arts center belongs downtown, he added.
“It’s part of what the downtown needs. I don’t think it’s part of what a suburban mall needs,” he said. “The urban sprawl that is best represented by Eastwood represents an unsustainable model that really tears at the core of the urban center. … (Eastwood) is a bastardization of the concept of an urban core.”
“It’s kind of a bummer,” said Courtney Millbrook, executive director of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra. “There were discussions that have been close” in the past about bringing something downtown, she said. “I think we don’t want to lose sight of that space for downtown Lansing.”
The LSO has been in talks with the owner of the venue about hosting some of the orchestra’s smaller events. The main concert series would still be held at the Wharton Center, she said, but details still need to be fleshed out. “I think there are some real possibilities. We haven’t committed to anything.”
When asked if she thinks the move is a bad sign for bringing a venue downtown, Millbrook said, “I hope not. For downtown development, a performing arts space is important for any plan. It’s just a matter of things being close and the money being there.”
The as-of-yet unnamed venue is part of a larger expansion — called The Heights at Eastwood — taking place on the north end of Eastwood Towne Center. The township is essentially the developer of The Heights, paying for the construction of the restaurants, venue and parking ramp with more than $20 million in municipal bonds. The venue owner, Chuck Senatore, will lease the space from the township. Bernero said he finds it “very, very odd and perplexing that the township is so directly engaged in speculative entrepreneurial endeavors.”
Senatore, an East Lansing native and co-founder of Tony Saccos Coal Oven Pizza, came back to the area after launching his restaurant in five other states. Just north of his restaurant and adjacent bar, Bar30, a Hyatt Place hotel and apartments are planned. A parking structure is already up. His venue is going on the first floor of the mixed-use parking ramp next to seafood, Latin and steakhouse-style restaurants.
“We’re hoping to draw a lot of bands and things like that that would have normally skipped over Lansing because there’s not a large enough venue here,” he said.
Lansing Township Planning Director Steve Hayward, who worked in the city’s planning and development department when Hollister tried bringing a venue downtown, acknowledges Lansing’s longstanding need for a mid-sized performing arts center. He also serves on the board of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing.
“One step at a time, we’re trying to add things in the region,” Hayward said, not straying far from thinking of Lansing as also East Lansing and Meridian, Delta and Delhi townships. “This region needs a home for the arts.”
Hayward recognizes the work of local theater companies as “very strong” and the impact Wharton has on the region. He says Senatore’s venue won’t compete with the convention business around town.
If it is about the township competing with the city, Hayward said he would “have to acknowledge the fact that the township is less than a city.” But, he added, where such a development would happen largely depends on private investment. “It’s not like they haven’t had a chance,” he said of someone building a venue in the city. “If there’s a developer in town that wants to build one of these things, let ‘em build it. Some have tried.”
Bernero countered: “If the venue would work there, it would work better downtown.”
David Wiener, who was the chief of staff for the Hollister administration, said the plan that started in the mid-’90s to bring a multi-purpose performing arts venue across the street from the baseball stadium “just kind of never took off.” Several years later, the city tried to partner with Cooley and LCC for a shared space at the corner of Kalamazoo Street and Capitol Avenue: “We had a number of meetings about it, but it just never gelled. Too many different pieces,” he said.
Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, said on City Pulse’s TV show a month ago, “If the city does focus on a performance art center, it needs to be in the heart of downtown Lansing.”
Whether a mid-sized performing arts center is downtown or in Eastwood doesn’t really matter, as long as the demand for such a site is met, Wiener said.
“If it fits a niche not being met, then that’s good for the community,” Wiener said. “Obviously, as a Lansing person, we’ve always looked for ways to draw people into the city.”
When asked if he thinks the Eastwood venue will make it more difficult to bring a similar place downtown, Wiener said: “I would guess so. They would be filling a niche. There’s no point in building another one.
“Our whole approach was to try not to compete. If they’re filling a niche, then so be it. And that’s what they’re doing. … I’d rather look at this from a regional perspective.”