After spending most of 2019 getting excited that a downtown performing arts center might finally happen, Lansing arts leaders need not worry that the COVID-19 pandemic has crushed that dream.
Turns out, it was not in the cards anyway.
After talking with 64 potential funders, experts from Capitol Fundraising Associates released a study in May concluding that a proposed $60 million facility is not feasible, owing to a lack of big donors in the Lansing area and a “donor fatigue” among those who are around.
The survey found “considerable enthusiasm” for a facility that would attract a variety of music performances and entertainment opportunities, house the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, “offer space for artists to collaborate/showcase their work, and provide a venue for schools to teach children about the arts.”
Respondents agreed that such a place would “activate” downtown, bring in more visitors and residents and boost the local economy.
They just didn’t want to foot the bill.
Erin Schor, chairwoman of the Arts Commission, said it’s “fair to say” that the performing arts center, as proposed, is dead in the water.
“There is support to do some things smaller, and possibly more targeted,” she said.
The feasibility study concluded that a project in the $10 million range might be financially viable.
Over 65% of interviewees in the study ranked their organization’s priority of building a downtown performing arts center at five or below, with 10 being highest priority.
The study followed a roller-coaster year of market research, meetings and design work by national consultant CMS Planning and Research and Fischer Dachs, a planning and design firm. The city hired the firm under a $105,000 contract paid for by a mix of public and private funds.
The flexible, cutting edge facility proposed by Fischer Dachs would have hosted touring pop, rock, hip-hop and country acts and served as home for the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, the Capital City Film Festival, the Lansing Art Gallery and the Public Media Center.
Prospects for realizing a dream that has eluded a series of mayors going back to David Hollister reached their peak last July. After conducting a public survey of more than 1,000 respondents, CMS consultant Michele Walter told the arts committee there is “compelling” public support.
However, even before the cascading health and civil rights crises of 2020, Walter said it would take an unprecedented fundraising effort and “bold” thinking.
Walter warned the mayor’s arts committee last fall it wouldn’t be a moneymaker. It would likely operate at a yearly shortfall of $640,000, according to CMS, while generating millions of dollars in economic impact and bringing 150,000 visitors downtown each year.
Then came 2020.
Beginning in March, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn vaporized the performing arts as we know them for the indefinite future. This month, a wave of protests against police violence came with nationwide demands to shift money from police budgets to improve health, education and housing for marginalized communities.
Unsurprisingly, the feasibility study found that among the potential funders surveyed, “funding for basic needs in the community takes precedence over other regional investments.”
Dominic Cochran, director of Lansing’s Public Media Center and co-founder of the Capital City Film Festival, said he’s not surprised at the feasibility study’s findings, but he doesn’t think the idea is dead.
“Superficially, it seems like a luxury, but there are a lot of studies that show the benefits to young people of arts education and exposure,” Cochran said.
Cochran said the feasibility study was necessary, but it was only a “preliminary step.”
“We’ll have to bring the case to the people, and build a case to look at this as a public resource, along the lines of a library,” he said.
He said potential corporate donors could be approached differently.
“I think the capacity is there,” he said. “It could be tapped in a more engaged way.”
Cochran said that the option of going ahead with a smaller venue, without addressing the costly acoustic and other needs of the Lansing Symphony is an option worth considering.
“It’s clearly going to take re-imagining what the committee came up with on the first try,” he said.
Schor, who is Mayor Andy Schor’s wife, said it was encouraging that the CMS survey last summer and the May financial feasibility study both found widespread enthusiasm for a performing arts center.
“We found that there really is passion for the arts in this community,” Schor said. “It’s just that raising funds has always been a challenge in this area and it continues to be, so let’s figure out how to move forward.”
Courtney Millbrook, executive director of the Lansing Symphony, wasn’t surprised at the study’s findings, but she said the arts community learned a lot by going through the planning process. She praised CMS for “managing expectations” for the project.
“You can’t just put up a building and not have any operational funding,” Millbrook said. “I was encouraged that people understood this is like running a stadium. You’ve got to invest in it annually.”
From the standpoint of June 2020, not owning and operating a $60 million facility designed to gather 1,400 people into one big room looks like a plus.
“As difficult as our problems at the symphony right now, it would be exponentially worse if we had a venue,” Millbrook said.