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Flexibility key to performing arts center

Consultant: No slam dunk but no pipe dream either

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Whoever is in charge of raising the curtain on a downtown performing arts center in Lansing can sit back and take a smoke break. It’s going to take some serious researching and soul-searching to come up with a design that works. And there might not even be a curtain.

That’s the takeaway from the first round of findings, which were presented Friday by a national consultant hired to shepherd the city through a complex and multi-faceted process.

“We think this is possible, but it’s going to take an innovative approach,” Michele Walter, lead consultant for Connecticut-based AMS Planning & Research, told the facilities committee of the Mayor’s Art and Culture Commission Friday. The city retained AMS for a $105,000 study, paid for with private funds except for $40,000 in cable fees from the Lansing Public Media Center.

Walter reported on the findings of a survey of potential users that drew 86 responses from 77 organizations, from individual artists to regional promoters to major players like the Capital City Film Fest and the Lansing Symphony.

Based on those findings, she said a successful facility would require “a very broad and nontraditional notion of content,” along the lines of the flexible, technologically advanced box venues going up around the country, and would have to reach out to a regional market.

“Getting it right will be hard and you’ll have to be quite inventive,” she said. “A traditional 2,000-seat shoebox concert hall or proscenium stage is not going to work.”

Among the facility’s prospective users are a score of smaller local arts organizations with small budgets, national promoters who cut tough deals to bring touring acts to the area, and the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, which operates on a razor-thin margin. That means a money-making facility is not in the cards.

A reliable source of revenue will be essential, Walter told the group, which met at the Lansing Center, whether it comes from a dedicated percentage of a hotel or convention tax, a millage, parking fees or some combination.

“It will not break even on its own,” Walter said. “It’s going to require a subsidy, and no one thinks there’s enough annual philanthropy available to sustain an enterprise of this magnitude.”

Walter was hesitant to pin down the prospective cost of the facility. “We were hearing $30-to-40 million, and it’s very hard for us to imagine getting there,” she said. “If you told us $50-to-$60 million, we’d go, ‘maybe.’”

If the project isn’t a slam dunk, it’s not a pipe dream, either.

The consultants’ research showed that the potential market for such a facility is “growing slowly but steadily,” with a growth rate projected at 2 percent over the next five years.

“Performance space is the primary need, by far,” Walter said. “In terms of building form, we’re talking about a music venue.”

The Wharton Center is nearby, but it’s too big for many uses and it’s operating at capacity, Walter said.

Wharton’s crowded schedule makes it hard for the Lansing Symphony to schedule its concerts on optimal dates and accommodate the best guest soloists’ schedules.

When the consultants ran the numbers for a large hall, the “sweet spot,” as expected, was a venue with 1,000 to 1,500 seats, filling a major gap in the tri-county region.

The average Lansing Symphony MasterWorks audience is 1,000 (1,200 for pops concerts), “right in the sweet spot of the venue size we’re talking about,” Walter said.

But the symphony may have to roll with some big changes. Survey respondents were interested in flexibility, not a fixed proscenium.

Courtney Millbrook, executive director of the Lansing Symphony, wasn’t surprised.

“That’s the trend,” Millbrook said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find any traditional single-use concert hall built anywhere in the world.”

Other potential content for the large hall includes touring live music and comedy, which Walter described as “underrepresented in this community,” and youth and family content.

That’s good news, she said, because venue planners can avoid the expense of a fly tower, the tall backstage space full of rigging and scenery like the one at Wharton. She said they run in the neighborhood of $12 million.

But would the symphony embrace a so-called “sticky floor” venue?

“The stage has to be big enough and we have to have a certain quality of sound,” Millbrook said. “If the seats are moveable, or not moveable, so a rock and roll band can be there the next day, that’s OK.”

Walter showed the group four recently built venues with features such as mechanized seating and state-of-the-art sound systems that provide the flexibility to keep a venue buzzing as many days and nights of the year as possible.

Soundbox San Francisco, developed first as a minimal $10 million rehearsal space for the San Francisco Symphony, brought new audiences to the symphony, and other users are using the space for virtual reality experiences, parties and hybrid art forms.

The $60 million Anthem in Washington, D.C., a hotter-than-hot commercial venue developed in 2017 as part of the massive District Wharf riverfront development, has a movable stage allows capacity to vary from 2,500 seated country music lovers to 6,000 standing hip-hop fans. Tanger Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, set to open next year, is a $78 million, 3,000-seat performing arts center that uses high-tech features to accommodate touring acts for 3,000 patrons to a symphony that draws about 1,000 people.

The New World Symphony Center in Miami Beach has a capacity of only 750, but “wallcasts” project sound and image to spectators seated in the park outside the hall. That hall cost $160 million, but it was designed by Frank Gehry and is “tricked out technologically,” Walter said.

The potential user survey also showed a “fair amount of interest in a small venue” in greater Lansing. A “sweet spot” of 200 to 300 seats would accommodate 13 organizations and be used 132 times a year. The data suggested that a black box-style space would be the most optimal.

“You have a lot of really small theater groups getting 15, 20 people at a show, a lot of meetings for under 400 people,” she said. She urged the committee to consider including a small venue “as part of a bigger solution” or as part of a longer-term cultural master plan.

Walter cautioned that the consultants’ next step, an in-depth “activity profile” of each organization, may result in different user numbers.

To fill out the picture, Walter’s team will roll out a broad-based online community survey in the next few weeks, to “confirm demand” and to “provide information that will help carry the water in selling this project.” A financial feasibility study, to see how much money can be raised from public and private sources, usually comes next. An “operational model” is planned to take form by September.

The potential user survey results included a comment Walter heard over and over.

“The users were saying, ‘We don’t just want another venue. It has to be something different, something unique to Lansing,’” she said.

Dominic Cochran, co-director of the Capital City Film Festival, strongly agreed.

“Whatever we build has to have a soul,” Cochran said.

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