Downtown arts venue breaks through to daylight

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A simple formula helped one of Lansing’s most elusive dreams chisel its way out of the icepack into the sunshine this week. Keep your eye on the sweet spot.

After 20 years of failed attempts under four mayors to build a performing arts center, and the collapse in May 2020 of plans to build a large-scale, $60 million facility, Mayor Andy Schor announced plans Tuesday to build a downsized concert venue and arts hub aimed directly at Lansing’s empty market niche of 1,530 seats, or 2,025 standing concertgoers.

The facility, called The Ovation, is expected to hit the Goldilocks mark between the 2,000-seat Wharton Center and much smaller venues and draw national rock, country, hip-hop, comedy and other attractions that now skip Lansing to play in Detroit or Grand Rapids.

The building will also be the permanent home of the Lansing Public Media Center, and, possibly, All of the Above Hip-Hop Academy, the Capital City Film Festival and the Lansing Art Gallery. Planners envision a year-round calendar of concerts, classes, recitals, art exhibits, workshops, independent film screenings and other events. 

The wild card in the project is a layer of 40 affordable “live-and-work spaces” designed to attract working artists, keep the facility busy and provide a steady source of revenue. 

Schor called the facility “an incredibly exciting opportunity to bring concerts, community events, educational opportunities, speeches, comedy, and so many other live performances together in a new, state-of-the-art venue.”

A consultant hired by the city predicted that the facility would bring in 190,000 visitors a year, 60,000 of them from out of town, and that arts center visitors would drop $5.3 million a year in Lansing.

“This amazing venue will truly be transformational for Lansing,” Schor said.

Lansing has blown this trumpet before, followed by a cricket-filled hush from private donors, but this time, the city has most of the financial cards already in hand.

The Ovation is expected to cost from $10 million to $20 million, depending largely on whether the 40 apartments are included in the final design. In September, it was announced that the Lansing area would receive $2 million in state funding to go toward the performing arts center as part of the coming year’s state budget. An additional $8 million in upfront revenue is expected from the bonding of public, educational and government access or PEG, fees, giving the city $10 million to get the project underway. A financial consultant has identified $3 million to $5 million in potential private donors. 

Dominic Cochran, director of the Lansing Public Media Center, co-director of the Capital City Film Festival and a key player in the project, said the “goal is not to have an operating subsidy at all.”

The proposed venue would fill a hole in the heart of the city’s downtown, a vacant lot at the corner of South Washington Avenue and West Lenawee Street. Lansing-based Wieland Construction, the contractor for the proposed facility, has already staged its equipment across Capitol Avenue, where construction of a new apartment block is underway.

“We think we’ve gotten to a place where we’re ready to go,” Schor said.

“We expect to receive valuable input from the public during the City Council process as we move toward a groundbreaking later in 2022,” Cochran said.

From hubcap to hub

In the 1990s, the now-defunct BoarsHead Theatre, the Lansing Art Gallery and other arts groups turned a stuffy, former downtown auto dealership into Lansing’s first Center for the Arts. It was a point of pride and an embarrassment at the same time, a soufflé in a hubcap that said more about the pluck of local artists than community pride.

The push for a lasting performing arts center in Lansing goes back to the administration and “world class city” dreams of David Hollister, who left office in 2003. 

Downtown’s last mid-sized concert venue, the Civic Center, had been demolished four years previously, in 1999.

“We were really close to getting one,” Hollister said in a May 2021 interview with City Pulse. The facility would have been built where the Stadium District apartments now stand. “We hired a consultant who persuaded Gov. John Engler, who was not exactly my friend, to put $500,000 in the budget to do some preliminary work,” Hollister said. “The wheels came off the buggy in the Great Recession.”

By the late 2010s, the recession was fading and big downtown dreams again seemed within reach. New housing blocks like the Stadium District, the Outfield and the Arbaugh Apartments were established, key landmarks like the Ottawa Power Station and the Knapp’s Building were renovated and several new housing developments, the Capital City Market and Courtyard Marriott hotel were on the way.

Around the country, new concert halls were changing the cityscape in places like Richmond, Louisville and Seattle, but it would take some painful adjustments to scale such a project to Lansing’s limited market and donor base.

In the pre-pandemic year of 2019, Schor’s arts and culture committee held a series of talks with national theater consultant AMS.

The acoustic and structural requirements of the prospective anchor tenant, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, drove the costs into the discomfort zone. The consultants pegged the cost of the facility at $45 million to $60 million, possibly more, and projected that it would operate at a yearly shortfall of $640,000. 

That balloon popped when Capitol Fundraising Associates released a study in May 2020 finding that a $60 million facility was not feasible, owing to a lack of big donors in the Lansing area and “donor fatigue” among the rest.

Lansing Symphony Orchestra executive director Courtney Millbrook saw the writing on the wall. 

“Without a doubt, it’s bittersweet,” Millbrook said. “I’m disappointed, but it’s going to be fantastic to see this size venue come downtown. It’s time. You’ll see how much the arts can change a place and drive the economy.”

At a stakeholder’s meeting Thursday, outgoing Wharton Center director Michael Brand said it would cost $130 million today to duplicate the orchestra’s current home, the Wharton Center, which cost $20 million in 1984.

“We’re super fortunate to have the Wharton Center,” Millbrook said. “It’s an amazing venue with great acoustics and would have ben hard to replicate. It’s not as if we don’t have anyplace else to be.”

‘Fertile market’

After hanging on for dear life in the first year of the pandemic, arts leaders regrouped in 2021 to breathe on the embers. The feasibility study left the arts community a slim reed to hang on to: a project in the $10 million range might be financially viable.

With the orchestral elephant out of the room, Cochran, the Lansing Art Gallery’s Barb Whitney, Ozay Moore of All-of-the-Above Hip-Hop Academy and other community arts leaders focused on what was possible. 

AMS consultant Michelle Walter told the arts commission that market surveys found “overwhelming” support (about 80 percent) for a new performing arts venue among Lansing area respondents and a strong response (about two thirds) saying current performance and entertainment options are lacking.

Walter also said several music promoters were “quite bullish” about Lansing’s market potential as a mid-sized concert venue for country music, alternative rock, cover bands and other touring acts like The Black Crowes, Ben Folds, DMX, Elvis Costello and others.

“They think it’s a really fertile market, “ Walter said.

The Wharton Center’s Brand called the proposed music venue the “missing link here in town.”

“If I were you, I’d do the whole project,” he said at Thursday’s stakeholder meeting. “It’s in a nice spot and it looks like there’s plenty of parking.”

A parking study by Dymaxion Development — a local company that was announced Tuesday as the project developer —found a maximum capacity of 2,621 parking spaces within a five- to 10-minute walk of the proposed arts center, 371 of them on the streets.

The Ovation would be a few blocks away from the newest small music venue in Lansing, the planned $900,000 redevelopment of the old gay bar then hookah lounge at 224 S. Washington Square into a music venue with a 700-to-800-person capacity. Cochran said the city has already talked with that project’s developers, Kevin Meyer and Scott Bell.

“We expect these venues to be complementary,” Cochran said. 

With the centerpiece of the proposed facility downscaled to a flat-floor concert venue, the financial picture brightened.

The chance for the city to capture $8 million in PEG fees held the key. PEG fees are part of the franchise fees cable companies pay the city in exchange for running their cables in the public right-of-ways. By state law, 2 percent of the gross revenues of those companies in the city of Lansing must be used for capital investments.

“That’s dedicated arts funding, which we all know is extremely rare and precious,” Cochran said.

Former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero was not known for his enthusiasm for the arts, but he successfully lobbied the state Legislature in 2006 to enable the city to capture the PEG money that not only built and equipped a top-drawer public media center, but has now put a performing arts center within the city’s reach. As a former state senator and state representative, Bernero had the privilege of lobbying on the floor of the Legislature and exerted that privilege so vehemently as he fought for the PEG money that the Legislature later adopted a rule barring such lobbying, informally known as the “Bernero rule.”

In September 2021, another $2 million went into the performing arts center kitty as part of the state’s $50 billion budget, owing largely to the advocacy of state Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, and Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing.

“The city of Lansing doesn’t have a performing arts center. We used to. This is a down payment on getting it done,” Hertel said. “I was proud to stake out $2 million, and I was proud to be part of that process.”

 

The art of numbers

As the scaled-down plan for a performing arts venue began to coalesce, Cochran couldn’t shake the consultants’ exhortation to “build it, but be bold.”

All the proposed variants of The Ovation have a 2,025-person (standing capacity) performing arts space, a smaller stage with a capacity of 275, offices and multi-purpose rooms, seven retail storefronts along South Washington Avenue, a second-floor balcony with a capacity of 250 seated or 400 standing, and a private party room with 125 standing capacity overlooking the main stage.

The “bold” part fell into place when Cochran recalled that the mayor’s arts commission noted a lack of “live-work space” geared toward artists.

At Tuesday’s stakeholder meeting, Jeff Deehan of Dymaxion Development said that such live-work spaces are a “huge hole” in the market.

“It was a light bulb moment — let’s connect the two,” Cochran said. He thought such an idea might be hard to sell to the community.

“Then we realized that’s exactly what they’re doing two miles down the road, at the Allen Neighborhood Center,” he said. “As always, Joan is ahead of the curve,” referring to the center’s longtime director, Joan Nelson.

Nelson met with members of the arts commission and touted the benefits of including housing units in their new facility on Kalamazoo Street to keep the space active and bring in revenue.

“The apartments are the thing that people will look back on in 20 years and be glad we did it,” Cochran said. 

They are also the most significant variable among the three variants Schor and city officials presented at Thursday’s stakeholder meeting. A “full build,” with 40 finished studio apartments, is estimated to cost $20 million to $21 million. A mid-range build, priced at $15 million to $16 million, would only include apartment shells. Both builds would have four floors. The third option, a two-floor building with no apartments, is priced at $12 million to $13 million. The lofts range in size from 312 square feet to 750 square feet, with a proposed monthly rental fee of $800.

If the city goes for one of the more expensive options, it has recourse to other sources of revenue. The 2020 report by Capital Fundraising Associates found $3 million to $5 million in potential community investment in a performing arts center. Cochran pointed out that with apartments in the mix, developers could get a bank loan.

Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Area Economic Partnership, or LEAP, urged the city to build the performing arts center as a public-private partnership to take advantage of brownfield tax credits.

Schor said he was open to a brownfield plan.

“We’d love to have state involvement,” he said.

Nate Scramlin of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. said the arts center might be eligible for a grant of up to $5 million through the Revitalization and Placemaking Program, a COVID relief program that distributing $100 million in American Rescue Plan dollars.

“I think it’s a terrific project and we gladly await your application,” Scramlin told the group at Thursday’s meeting.

 

Natural fit

A lot of people have fond memories of their rough and ready dorm years, but there’s nothing like moving into a house.

Moore, of All of the Above Hip-Hop Academy, said “Lansing is full of best kept secrets,” his own organization included.

“This building is a going to be a beacon to the community,” Moore said. “If you’re looking for anything in the arts, music, youth development, you know where to go, and that’s sweet.”

Moore said the academy is “on a trajectory to grow,” but many young people who would benefit from its programs don’t know about it.

“What the YMCA is to recreational sports — we want to be that for hip-hop culture and urban art,” he said. “Being in a space like this, we’ll be visible to the community, a thread all the way through, from the big stage to the classrooms.”

Cochran said the Capital City Film Festival could settle into the new venue, while continuing to infiltrate other spaces around town, and even establish regular indie film screenings on nights when there is no concert. The Lansing area hasn’t seen a year-round venue for indie and foreign films since The Odeon Theatre closed in 1992.

Barb Whitney, director of the Lansing Art Gallery and Education Center, said the organization has been looking for a “forever home” for eight years.

At Tuesday’s stakeholder meeting, Cochran floated a range of ownership models for the new facility, including creative forms of shared community ownership.

Whitney said the gallery has long been interested in facility where they would have a “vested interest.”
“Our board is very excited about the prospect of what a deeper relationship with the Lansing Public Media Center would look like, and that could include a shared ownership model,” Whitney said

Moore called it “a prestigious opportunity we’d love to be a part of.”

“Hip-hop culture is a good go-between,” Moore said. “There are aspects of visual art, media, music, dance. The nature of what we’re trying to do with young people, with technology, with music, and them being involved in film — it’s a natural fit.”

Cochran noted that the media center, the Lansing Art Gallery and All of the Above have similar missions but “don’t overlap much.”

“Sometimes cities build facilities like this, and it can feel like it’s up on a hill,” Cochran said. “With these three compatible, community-driven organizations already there, people will feel comfortable in the building. It won’t feel like this unattainable, gated thing.”

That pleases Rep. Anthony, who helped secure the $2 million in state funding for the Lansing arts center. At Thursday’s stakeholder meeting, Anthony urged a community investment model for the new facility, invoking the mantra of community organizers: “It’s nothing about us without us.”

“I would hate it if folks aren’t seeing the talent reflected on that stage should be like us — not just rock ‘n’ roll, country or hip-hop, but all the other pieces that folks want to see and enjoy — Lansing folks enjoying a Lansing entity,” she said.

If the mix is right, The Ovation has the potential to hit more than one “sweet spot.”

“Ozay Moore and champions like him are in perfect alignment with our mission to make the arts more accessible in Lansing,” Whitney said. “They dedicate their lives to making the arts accessible and helping people feel they have a place in that work.”

Moore said the new venue could be a “beacon to the community.”

“I think it’s brilliant to get together and fire up the people of Lansing and say, ‘You didn’t know it’s here, but it’s here, come and take advantage,’” he said. “That notion, and that amount of resources, could truly change the dynamic of our city and the people and who live in it. It’s a real testament to how great it is to be here right now.”

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