South county arts center programs a trouble-filled rerun
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Miami-Dade County is building a performing arts center that's more than a year late opening, not done yet and millions over budget. Delays have increased costs, as have construction change-orders, and the county is trying to collect damages from the contractor. Meanwhile, consultant fees are rising.
The center hopes to raise millions by selling naming rights. It doesn't yet have a manager and the county is seeking one.
Oh, the center doesn't have dedicated parking, either. It hopes to share with a nearby shopping center lot.
If this sounds suspiciously like a rerun of the downtown Performing Arts Center that ran way over budget and years late, finally did sell the naming rights and now is the Adrienne Arsht center, it's not. This is another arts center in the county, and it's going through similar development pains.
And, if we're not careful, so will taxpayers.
The background is this: when the county agreed to build the $200-million-plus downtown center (it later passed half a billion, but that is indeed an old story), commissioners who were jealous of downtown getting so much decided they needed performance centers in their districts, too.
And so the commission pledged millions to Hialeah to beef up a high school auditorium, and more to Overtown to upgrade the Lyric Theater, and they threw a brand-new South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center into the package. That South Miami-Dade center is now 75% complete.
The South Miami-Dade center is rising on 6 acres at 211th Street across from Southland Mall. It's to have 966 seats — just under half the size of either hall downtown. The county budgeted $34 million for the center, now up to $36 million, and $10 million more from general obligation bonds for an adjacent 7,400-square-foot activity center.
Although this arts center was approved in the 1990s, a contract wasn't signed to build it until 2005. It was to be finished midyear 2007. As we reported this month, what can go wrong has gone wrong — just as, on a far larger scale, we saw with the downtown center.
And, as we saw downtown, despite commissioners' pledges that the county would never pay a penny of operating losses, the county has been on the hook from day one — more than $8 million a year from tax funds.
It's late in the game to offer advice on the South Miami-Dade center, but it's worth some lessons to avoid the pain we've felt downtown.
And so, we might suggest:
nKnow what your patron market likes. The downtown center booked performances that left 60% of seats vacant for a year. The same quality acts might not even fill 966 seats — and downtown spent far more for talent than South Dade can. For sure, you'll need a different kind of performers.
nThe downtown center's resident companies provide a base of shows. The new center will need a base, too, and good enough to fill seats. A local Hindu group that planners said wanted to use the center is not a true anchor.
nThe manager needs to be aboard yesterday. The center plans to open in three months and it's very late to book anything. Even if bookings could be arranged, tickets aren't often sold at the last minute.
nPricing the hall is vital. Local groups need to be able to afford rent, but rents must be high enough to cover costs.
nFigure operating costs carefully. The downtown center bled money because the experts calculated air-conditioning using square feet instead of cubic feet.
nIn tough economic times, don't count on naming rights. The aptly-named Superlative Group from Cleveland told the county before construction began that naming revenues could run into the millions. Pray that we didn't budget that much.
nRemember, parking can be sticky. Counting on sharing with the mall is fine, but others in South Dade have been talking about developing those parking acres for something else. Get a long-term contract. The downtown center says it's fine on parking but doesn't control one space long term — and well-dressed center patrons can be fussy about long walks.
nCounty money to aid arts groups will tighten with a reduced tax intake. Rethink any business plan that counts on leasing a building to arts groups.
nMost important, be realistic about how much in tax money you'll get to cover losses. In budget-cutting times, with $8 million already going to the downtown center annually for losses, you can't count on much. What's the fallback plan?
The picture isn't all bleak. The Arsht Center is offering a quality venue with quality performances. But it shows no signs of breaking even without its subsidy.
The South Miami-Dade Center is well-positioned in an underserved area. It will be county-operated, so it has none of the downtown center's problems of mixing volunteer and government roles.
But, because it is county-operated, it also lacks the entrepreneurial drive a performance center needs to thrive. The new manager must provide that — and in a hurry.
The center cannot afford to delay. The viewing and listening public deserves the opportunity for quality programming, and the taxpaying public deserves a center that doesn't become a black hole for taxes.
We said all that years ago about the downtown center. But then, stop me if you've heard this one before.