Grand Illusion

Ten years ago, Grand Center Inc. set out to create the region's "premier arts, entertainment and education district." They fixed the sidewalks and brought in the lights. It's a nice place to visit, but nobody stays.

KETC now serves as Grand Center Inc.'s model for facilitating redevelopment. This is how the agency has facilitated the Pulitzer Museum and how it plans to implement new housing on Olive, the newly resurrected Grand West development.

Betsy Wright Millard is now involved in selecting an architect to design the Forum's new facility, which will be situated next to the Pulitzer Museum. "I'm beginning to realize how long it takes to get anything done in St. Louis," she comments. "Ten years is a rather short period of time in this town."

Millard believes Grand Center Inc.'s new role as facilitator is the most suitable for the agency. "I think they are probably best at concentrating on facilitating people coming in and making investments, which is not the touchy-feely stuff about programming and supporting organizations. They're not in this world to support organizations. They're in this world to make the district better. They should help out in things they should be good at, which means getting tax credits, building stock that can be gotten very cheaply and turning it over to groups and letting them do it.

"I'm not saying Grand Center has to pay for this. I'm saying, I need tax credits -- you guys know how to get them. If you want me to stay here, help me. And they are. They've been very good with that. I will need parking. I will need to know how many parking spots I'm going to need. If I don't have them, how close do I need to be to get a variance? Those are the things they ought to know and help me do."

Were Grand Center's early plans more dreams than goals? Ruwitch terms the initial years "conceptual." Given that St. Louis is a city without great financial resources, without strong political leadership, and given the cuts in federal redevelopment money in the Reagan/Bush years, along with the devastating cuts in arts funding, it's remarkable that the sidewalks got done.

Those with long memories in the arts community say there are other reasons many of Grand Center Inc.'s goals failed. Even with the estimable Gaddes in charge, it is said, the agency was always more about real estate than about culture.

But the vision of those early years, at least what was communicated to the press, was the development of a cultural district. Gaddes left to become director of the Santa Fe Opera in 1994, and Ann Ruwitch, who had served as director of Arts in Transit, was selected as the new president.

Ron Himes, artistic director of the Black Rep -- who has had the closest contact with Grand Center Inc.'s administration, being that the agency owns and manages the Grandel -- says the agency changed dramatically with this transition of power: "Somewhere around the time Richard was on his way out, the vision and direction of the board changed, because you couldn't have picked a more different person from Richard Gaddes than Ann Ruwitch."

In his office in the Arts Annex, just down the hall from Ruwitch's, Himes laughs and cautions himself to be more politic when he sits down to talk about his relationship with the agency. But the more he talks about it, the more his years of frustration are apparent.

Himes believes Ruwitch was not selected to continue what Gaddes had begun but to change Grand Center Inc.'s direction -- and that the new direction was poorly defined. "Within five years of us moving to Grand Center, the entire staff of Grand Center had changed. The entire staff. We couldn't be looking at continuity. We didn't even have people who knew history. All of a sudden we had to be dealing with revisionist history: 'No, they didn't tell you that. That's not what we said we'd do for you.'" According to Himes, the relationship between Grand Center Inc. and every arts organization in the district changed.

"But when the whole staff changed," Himes emphasizes, "part of the attitude of people who came in was -- and this changed, too -- was that 'Richard and those people were giving away the store, and we're here to put an end to that.' I think that is what Ann's directive was."

Arts groups that had been paying $1 for office space in the Arts Complex were now paying Grand Center Inc. $1 per square foot. (Dance St. Louis, for instance, paid $1 when Sally Brayley Bliss first came in 1995 and now pays $404 per month, up from $337 the year before, with an increase projected by Grand Center Inc. for each calendar year. Grand Center Inc. pays nothing for its space.)

At the Grandel, the Black Rep was told it needed to be paying Grand Center Inc. more rent, substantially more rent. "The Black Rep wouldn't be at the Grandel if it had to pay more money," Himes says with considerable agitation, "because when you came and asked us to come to the Grandel, you asked us knowing we couldn't pay. You were going to build it for Theatre Project (which folded before construction began) and the Black Rep, knowing neither of us had the wherewithal to be able to pay. Now, with a concerted marketing effort by Grand Center, Theatre Project and the Black Rep could have conceivably been selling out, thereby generating enough revenue to pay Grand Center a little more money."

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