Miami's performing arts center struggles to meet construction schedule
By Frank Norton
With foundations nearly laid, about 120 workers are set to begin the 11-month phase of pushing up steel beams to support the roofs and walls and the complex electrical circuitry needed to power Miami's performing arts center.
Turret-like elevator towers already mark the perimeter of the planned Sanford & Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House, rising west of Biscayne Boulevard between 13th and 14th streets.
"We're moving aggressively to stick to schedule," said Gail Thompson, project director. "We've had the rainiest spring and summer ever."
The center's three-year building phase, which began in October 2001, is scheduled for completion Oct. 15, 2004, though final completion will depend on a number of variables, such as weather and the timeliness of steel beam shipments now predicted to be arriving two to three weeks late, Ms. Thompson said last week.
Although the steel shipments previously expected Sept. 16 would probably be delayed about two weeks, Ms. Thompson said, it will not affect the completion date.
"I was shocked and appalled to hear the Sun-Sentinel report on NPR (National Public Radio) this morning that we could see much longer delays," she said, denying earlier rumors that late shipments could push back completion by six months or a year.
"We are slightly behind schedule but have acceleration plans in place. You might see we are working weekends and late nights now," she said.
The $370 million performing arts center project is considered the largest public-private partnership ever undertaken by Miami-Dade County, with building costs totaling $255 million. Barring incessant rains or a major unforeseen force, money is the only other factor that could significantly delay the center's opening.
"Let's face it, this is a tough economic climate," said Nancy Herstand, executive director of the Performing Arts Center Foundation, the fund-raising arm created to attract private sector money to help get the center up and running. "Everybody becomes more selective in what they do during a downturn and that raises the challenge for us."
The Ziffs are making installment payments on a $10 million pledge that entails putting their name on the opera hall, Ms. Herstand said. It will be the western building of the complex planned to be home for five local arts organizations.
Although revenues from Miami-Dade County's convention development tax on tourist spending are financing the bulk of the project, private-sector donations remains crucial to its completion.
Ms. Herstand said she is confident the foundation will meet its $80 million campaign goal toward the end of the project, still about three years off. The group has raised about $50 million but has taken 10 years and about $10 million in campaign operating costs to do it.
The fund-raising goal includes a $21 million endowment that must be in place by the time the arts center opens. Interest from that fund is expected to accrue $800,000 to $1 million each year and is to be used to help fund the center's operating losses.
Of the foundation's $80 million campaign, $42.2 million is earmarked for building costs, payable directly to the county when the center opens, and $21 million will go to the creation of the operating endowment fund. More than $10 million in campaign operating expenses and about $5 million to help set up the Performing Arts Center Trust administration that will run the center make up the balance of the total private sector fundraising commitment.
This last three-year leg of the private funding campaign is expected to be the most difficult due to national and local economic woes and the fact that some of the biggest donors have already been tapped.
"Is it more difficult, yes, but we are optimistic that we'll meet our goals," said foundation Chairman Sherwood Weiser. "There's no question the market has affected some gifts. But the people we're talking to still recognize the importance of the project."
Ms. Herstand and others said that while business has slowed, there have been no withdrawals of pledges due to this year's stock market plunges. In fact, she said, the percentage of gifts coming through stock equities is small.
Even counting donations from individuals, she said, there have been no losses.
"That says a great deal to me about the people behind this project really wanting to see it come through. It also reflects the depth of donors' pockets, since their wealth to some degree insulates them from shocks in the economy. We're fortunate this is not a grassroots campaign because that's where you would feel it the most."
Mr. Weiser said summer fundraising in Miami is especially difficult since many potential donors spend the season north or abroad.
With about three years and $30 million to go, the foundation has turned to state and federal governments for help.
"We are looking for appropriations from the federal budget for the coming year" - October to September - and that's not without precedent in terms of other performing arts centers," said Michael Hardy, president & CEO of the Performing Arts Center Trust.
Rep. Carrie Meek together with Sen. Bob Graham and Sen. Bill Nelson are spearheading an effort to raise $2 million in federal appropriations for the rehabilitation of an Art Deco tower that is planned in front of the opera house. There are 13 such requests nationwide likely to be decided just after the start of the fiscal year in October.
A spokesperson for Rep. Meek called the project a "huge economic development engine for downtown Miami, just like the air and seaports," adding that performing arts centers spin-off production and performance studios, shops and restaurants.
Officials would not comment on the status of the request but Sen. Graham's press secretary Jill Greenberg said "it is early in the appropriations process, but the senator sees the performing arts center as the cornerstone of redevelopment downtown. He is committed to a long-term effort to secure funding" for the project.
In terms of state funds, trust and foundation executives are pushing for Regional Cultural Facilities Act dollars, which could finance programming at the center up to a maximum of $2.5 million a year for up to four years.
Mr. Hardy said planners would seek appropriations in the spring budget.
The center was designed by Cesar Pelli and is being built by Performing Arts Center Builders, a partnership of Odebrecht Construction, the Haskell Company and Ellis Don Corp. It will include the 2,480-seat Ziff Opera House, a 2,200-seat Carnival Symphony Hall, a 200-seat flexible space studio theater, a 57,000-square-foot central plaza with outdoor performance space, an Art Deco tower and a restaurant.