By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
How many consultants does it take to keep the Kiel Opera House closed? So far, three. The latest hired hands from afar were led by Theatre Projects Consultants Inc. out of Connecticut, just a short shuttle from Broadway. St. Louis 2004 signed the check this time, for about $100,000, though the study was "commissioned" by a 2004 task force made up of 12 representatives from area arts organizations.
The study, which weighs 2 pounds, 2 ounces and is seven-eighths of an inch thick, deals with numerous topics in its "St. Louis Cultural Arts Assessment," including designating a person to be an "arts champion," renovating the Medinah Temple on Olive Street to be a performing-arts cooperative and starting an "arts incubator" in the Grand Center area for young people and amateur artists.
One other recommendation in the nine-page executive summary is for the construction of a 1,200- to 1,800-seat theater in Grand Center for "opera, dance and theatre events." Omitted from the executive summary but included in the study is a nine-paragraph recommendation that concludes that "the arguments we have heard to restore the (Kiel) opera house simply do not justify the expenditure of funds needed to accomplish this major renovation."
Not addressed in the pages of the study is the fact that Kiel Center Partners (a group of Civic Progress member companies and owners of Kiel Center and the Blues hockey team) promised to reopen the Opera House as part of a city-subsidy deal for the Kiel Center arena.
This is the third study to make such a conclusion, the first being a 1996 analysis conducted by Fox Associates, owners of the Fox Theatre. That study pushed for other uses of the Opera House, at one point even suggesting that the Market Street facade could be kept but the interior transformed into a parking garage.
In July, a hit-and-run study -- commissioned jointly by the city of St. Louis and the Kiel Center Partners -- by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) stated that the Opera House's performance days were over but that it could be used as museum or a blues or jazz hall of fame.
Now comes another treatment, this time one that trumpets the importance of Grand Center -- loosely, the area just north of Lindell Boulevard along Grand Avenue, including the Fox Theatre and Powell Symphony Hall. The study was intended to make sweeping statements as well as specific recommendations about the local arts scene. To do that, St. Louis 2004 Vice President JoAnne LaSala says, Kiel Opera House had to be dealt with, even though the task force might want to address other matters.
"It was because it was the big elephant in the room," LaSala says. "We had to look at it. If we were going to look at arts facilities and we brought in such a high-quality team, we wanted their professional opinion on Kiel Opera House and its prospects for renovation as a performing-arts space. So they gave it to us."
Those pushing to reopen the Opera House smell another fix.
In the 1996 study by Fox Associates, it was a competitor, the Fox Theatre, assessing the worth of reopening a venue that would provide direct competition. With the ULI study, Kiel Center Partners and the city paid for the study, and the study didn't deal with the legal question of whether the Kiel Center Partners had a legal obligation to renovate the Opera House as part of the deal they made with the city to build the new Kiel Center.
LaSala has heard the suspicions before but denies them with regard to the study commissioned by the 2004 task force. Victor Gotesman, president of Theatre Projects Consultants Inc., was not given marching orders, she says.
"If you think we were looking for an answer, Victor can tell you we didn't say, 'Go look at the Kiel Opera House and come back and tell us we shouldn't work on it,'" LaSala says. "Frankly, I was hoping, completely, that they would come back with some magical solution that would solve a tough civic problem."
There are many generalities, details and ideas in the study but no magic, particularly when it comes to Kiel Opera House.
Gotesman thinks the Opera House, which opened in 1934, is a wonderful structure, but he doesn't think it's financially feasible to fix it up.
"Our assessment of the Kiel was not an in-depth look at 'this part of it is going to cost this much money and this part is going to cost this much money.' What we did was a brief estimate. Our brief estimate was that it would be cost-prohibitive compared to building a new facility in Grand Center. We thought that was a better investment for the community than renovating Kiel," Gotesman says.
That's not to say the Opera House couldn't be used for something else, says Gotesman. But for large-scale productions, it has a loading area with limited access that would make logistics a nightmare, and correcting that would be costly, he says.
"There are major, major limitations in that building, not the least of which are the Americans with Disabilities Act and code issues that exist today that didn't exist when the building was built," Gotesman says. "We understand there is a strong emotional attachment to Kiel in this community. We think something should be done with it. Our task was to determine if that could be a theater. We're saying no."
The two separate recommendations -- to not reuse the Opera House for performances and to build a new theater in Grand Center -- were made without any cost analysis of either proposition, admits Gotesman.
"We didn't do specific cost analysis, no -- we're not cost consultants," Gotesman says, but he defends his conclusion: "We're not only talking about financial feasibility, we're talking about market feasibility; we're also talking a bit about conceptual feasibility and philosophical feasibility, because we think -- this is our opinion -- that by renovating Kiel as a performing-arts center you're really turning your back on Grand Center."
Gotesman stresses that by concentrating facilities and efforts on Grand Center, the leadership problem that exists in the local arts scene might be solved.
"Because the arts community is fragmented, fractionalized, without a lot of unity," he says. "All the recommendations we made need strong leadership, so the leadership issue is probably the key issue. We didn't find that leadership in any of the usual places -- the public sector, the corporate sector, in the cultural landscape or the private sector."
Those beating the bushes to save thecontinued on page 28OPERAcontinued from page 26Opera House have long suspected that the powers that be (Kiel Center Partners, Civic Progress, St. Louis 2004, you name it) are out to protect Grand Center at any cost and don't want to complicate life for those who own Kiel Center. "The serious opposition is to protect the Fox Theatre monopoly," says Ed Golterman, the man leading the effort to reuse the Opera House as a performing-arts center. "The pressure on that end -- you wouldn't believe it."
Competition is a sticking point: The 4,500-seat Fox Theater is thought to be too close in size to the 3,500-seat Opera House for comfort. One option floated was to downsize the Opera House, but Golterman -- who is the head of Kiel for Performing Arts Inc. -- isn't in favor of that, saying that a 3,000-seat venue at Kiel would have a bigger impact on downtown.
Besides, Golterman contends, Cleveland supports four theaters with about 3,000 seats each, and St. Louis could do the same.
"When there's a show at the Fox for any length of time, all the producers are shut out, and they look at St. Louis as a one-theater town," he says. "Cleveland has four of comparable size, and they're all busy."
One of the flaws of the new study, Golterman says, is that it didn't consider the new convention hotel coming to downtown, or the planned renovation of the old Edison Bros. warehouse at 14th Street and I-64 into condominiums and a hotel. "They didn't know there was going to be 4,000 hotel rooms downtown, which easily can support performing arts at Kiel. People like to go within walking distance or a short taxi ride over," says Golterman.
And as for competition, the new performing-arts theater at the University of Missouri-St. Louis will provide a facility with 1,800 seats. Gotesman, who happens to have been the consultant on that project as well, claims that a new 1,800-seat facility at UM-St. Louis can thrive along with a new 1,800-seat facility at Grand Center.
"We think it's complementary. The focus in St. Louis needs to be in Grand Center," he says. "Again, in concept, we're trying to promote the full development of an arts district and make a recommendation for a facility there. Academic facilities tend to become very full of academic uses and are not totally available to outside users."
Golterman doesn't see it that way. He doesn't think it's consistent to claim that a reopened Opera House would hurt Fox but that a theater space of identical size opened in Grand Center wouldn't hurt the UM-St. Louis center. The fact that Gotesman approves of the two projects he's consulted on concerns Golterman.
"That's a direct conflict of interest, to have someone consulting on the Opera House for forces who oppose the Opera House who also is consulting on the UMSL facility," Golterman says. "It's a total conflict of interest."
The UM-St. Louis performing-arts center is expected to cost about $49 million. Goltermann's group has estimated that a complete renovation of the Opera House that would enable the main stage to be used, along with the six assembly rooms and the Kiel Club downstairs, would cost somewhere between $50 million-$60 million.
Kiel Center Partners, having pointed to the $2.5 million they say they have spent to re-do some of the Opera House's heating and air conditioning, claim it has completed its part of the deal struck when the city was told Kiel Center Partners would renovate the Opera House in exchange for $35 million in public assistance for the Kiel Center project. Amazingly, the partners received a "certificate of completion" on the Opera House, though some contend that that work, and that document, is not sufficient.
"We think Kiel Partners will be with us if they see a good business plan," says Golterman. "We would hope that Kiel Center Partners would assist with some of the basic work."
Golterman says he expects to have details soon. Mark Sauer, head of Kiel Partners, is a tad skeptical when he hears that Golterman expects to have a proposal, a "business plan," by Jan. 15.
"I'll circle that day on my calendar," says Sauer. "I'm seeing a lot of hat -- I want to see some cattle. I don't see it. I just hear talk.
"We've given them access. Ed's been here many, many times," Sauer adds. "If he's got a financeable deal, then it will speak for itself."
Sauer accepts the conclusions of the previous studies. Both the ULI study, paid for by the city and Kiel Partners, and the study paid for by St. Louis 2004 dismissed any idea of opening the Opera House as performance venue.
"Who's next? How many times do we have to hear this? That's in Technicolor to me," Sauer says. "If it makes economic sense to open it again, someone will put that deal together."
The final version of the ULI study, received last week, stuck to its original recommendations. Steve Engelhardt, spokesman for St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green, says they have met with Golterman's group. "We want any group to do its due diligence up front, so that the hard questions are asked up front," says Engelhardt. "We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. The original deal was unworkable and unrealistic."
Just to open the Opera House means making it accessible to the disabled, at a cost of $2 million, and "seismic retrofitting" to make the building meet current codes, at a cost of another $7 million. So the original figure of $2.5 million for renovating the Opera House showed both the city and Kiel Center Partners were way off-base, Engelhardt says.
Golterman had prospective investors tour the Opera House last week and says that John Kinnamon, who runs a dinner theater between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, is interested in using the Kiel Club and one of the assembly rooms for a dinner theater. Goltermann says other local arts groups could use one of the other assembly rooms, which could seat as many as 600 for productions.
For financing, Golterman says, Palm Capital Investors of Boca Raton, Fla., has discussed issuing private bonds to help finance the deal. Through it all, Golterman and his citizen group are driven, optimistically working toward a lease proposal and a "feasibility study" next month.
"I hate that phrase, but if they want us to call it a feasibility study, we'll do it," Golterman says. "But I absolutely hate that phrase, because while we're doing studies, other cities are doing.