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The clock is ticking on a proposal for a new downtown Greensboro performing arts center, which many city council members and other advocates say needs to be approved in mid-June so it can appear on the ballot as a bond referendum vote in the fall. With a short turn-around schedule, a newly created task force — meeting for the first time on Thursday — has a lot to tackle.

Two similar bond referendums failed in recent years, in part because people didn’t understand what they were being asked to vote on, said Community Foundation president Walker Sanders.

“I think those efforts failed because Greensboro as a community doesn’t like things being slammed down their throat,” he said. “We have a performing arts center right now and it’s a liability to this community. It’s the pits. Something’s got to be done for this city to compete with a performing arts facility.”

Community participation in the process will prevent residents from rejecting the project, especially at the polls, he said.

At the request of interim City Manager Denise Turner Roth, the Community Foundation began creating a task force with three committees, a subcommittee and an advisory board. Downtown Greensboro Inc., the United Arts Council, city council and other stakeholders submitted names of people who should be on the task force, Sanders said. Out of 80 to 100 people who were invited to participate, about 55 responded by the deadline three days later on Feb. 6.

Some residents have raised questions about the timing of the project, arguing four months isn’t enough time for an economic impact report or genuine community process, and say funding a project of this magnitude during tough economic times is a bad move, especially if a bond referendum passed that would likely necessitate raising taxes.

Residents have also said they feel the outcome of the task force, which aims to “create an open, candid and constructive dialogue around the needs of a performing arts center,” is a foregone conclusion because of who is leading the process.

The Community Foundation, which supports creating a new performing arts center, hired Mayor Robbie Perkins’ former campaign manager and marketing and advertising veteran Ross Harris to manage the task force. Harris said she knew when she took the position the question about a conflict of interest would arise. Perkins has expressed his strong support for a performing arts center, particularly one built downtown and managed by Greensboro Coliseum Director Matt Brown.

“I’ve been around this community for a long time and I think I’ve proven myself to be objective,” Harris said. “I can assure you in no way will these results will be biased based on my relationships with Robbie. It’s an open process and we aren’t going into it with any preconceived notions, and that’s really the truth.”

Sanders said there aren’t foregone conclusions in the process; otherwise they wouldn’t be creating the task force in the first place. He said the foundation picked Harris because of her decades of experience and because she knows everyone in the community.

“The fact that she managed Robbie’s campaign is kind of icing on the cake,” Sanders said, adding that city council’s leadership is why the issue is even on the table. “There is no way you could do this process if you don’t engage people that are already a part of this. Transparency is the solution to conflicts of interest. Everyone knows where people stand.”

Sanders said the task force members were not unbiased, but that they didn’t have a uniform opinion and that the goal was to involve as many people as possible in the process, regardless of their views on the issue.

“We will measure success if people can at least say it was an objective and open process… and allow everyone to make an informed decision,” Sanders said.

The task force will hold three public hearings over the next several months as an opportunity to report its findings about similar projects, the impact on downtown, the ability to raise about $10 million in private funding and how it will relate to the rest of the cultural community.

The hearings will also be an opportunity for residents to provide feedback and raise questions or concerns. The task force is not conducting a comparative study between downtown locations and the originally proposed coliseum site, but is only focused on downtown options.

Part of the reason a new performing arts center came up and that the process has a short timeline is due to increased funding of $11 million through the hotel/motel tax becoming available for cultural investment, Sanders said. In December, Coliseum Director Matt Brown proposed plans to build a $36 million performing arts center on the coliseum site funded in part by the hotel/motel tax funds, though the money could be spent to enrich other cultural projects or ventures.

Brown and others, like Sanders, have said Greensboro needs a state-of-the-art center to compete with complexes like the Durham Performing Arts Center, or DPAC, and with the bond debt paid off to the crumbling War Memorial Auditorium, they say now is the time for a new facility.

DJ Hardy, a former accountant who has run for city council in the last two elections and is on the civic engagement committee of the task force, said he is very supportive of the idea but most opponents he’s talked to address the cost. While Hardy said it’s hard to quantify a quality-of-life improvement like a new center, he said the timeline seemed short.

“There’s really a challenge to convince people that this is something that demands such a short timeline to turn around and demands such an allotment of bond funds,” Hardy said. “Four months for anything involving action by the city generally seems like an impossibility, frankly, but this is something that should have broad community support.”

While many residents would welcome a new performing arts center, many people may not see it as an imperative project, he said.

Harris said she did not think they were rushing the process, but that is was necessary to move quickly because even the current schedule wouldn’t allow a performing arts center to be opened until late 2015 or early 2016.

Former mayor and Carolina Theatre president Keith Holliday, who is on the task force’s economic impact/feasibility subcommittee for the arts and culture, said there are many moving pieces to the equation but that a new center is needed downtown and should be connected to other cultural institutions like the Carolina Theatre.

Holliday said within the first two years of operation, DPAC nearly put the Carolina Theatre in Durham, which is not affiliated with the one in Greensboro but is run by the city, out of business. After an infusion of funds and some collaboration, both cultural centers are thriving just blocks from each other, which is what Holliday would like to see happen in Greensboro.

Other factors that need to be considered include the type of events a center would host and how many seats it would include, Holliday said.

“I want to be joined at the hip with this building,” Holliday said, gesturing to locations near the Carolina Theatre where a center could be located. “Bigger is not always better. I don’t want it to hurt us.”

Higher seating capacity, like Brown’s proposal for a 3,600-seat venue, carries a larger price tag, but Holliday said a bigger size can also mean a lower quality sound and cultural experience for fans who, for example, want to see actor’s facial expressions.

The task force plans to hold three public hearings on the proposed performing arts center in April and May.

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