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.

Today, the Black Rep pays Grand Center Inc. a $60,000 "usage fee" from January-June. Because Himes believed the rates the agency offered the Black Rep for the fall were exorbitant, the second-largest theater company in the city vacates its "home" and performs at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park during those months.

Himes says that his company's relationship with Grand Center Inc. "is as good as it's been in a while" -- with the agency helping secure a $100,000 HUD grant for the Black Rep to do a feasibility study of its own on the Sun for a space that would function as an education and technical-support center, with acting and dance studios, a 150-seat black-box theater, rehearsal space for traveling shows, a box office, gallery and retail space, administrative offices, and costume and property shops. Himes acknowledges that Grand Center Inc.'s new role as facilitator "may be progress in that, at least now they're admitting what they are and 'fessing up to what they want" and sees this as an opportunity to move forward. But he feels that the need remains to sometimes retrace the history of the relationship between the Black Rep and Grand Center Inc., because "their revisionist history doesn't remember that they couldn't have raised the funding money to renovate the Grandel if every grant they wrote didn't say, 'We're building a home for the Black Rep.' Every grant. Every proposal."

And Grand Center Inc. couldn't talk about an Arts Annex if there weren't arts organizations housed there. Yet Himes has heard that the rent for the Black Rep's office space is about to increase again: "Why do we have to pay them rent? They don't pay the city rent. It's ludicrous, at any rate. I said, don't pay it."

Ten years after consultant John Bos said it, Tom Reeves, chief credit officer of the eastern region for Mercantile Bank and chairman of Grand Center's board, is still saying it: "We want people to stay longer after the symphony. We want people to stay longer after the Fox and come earlier."

Reeves, in his Mercantile office in downtown Clayton, has papers and building plans strewn about the room in a morass that's pleasing to find in a banker's office. Redevelopment is one of his specialties, and he wants to put into perspective the hard task of rebuilding a neighborhood.

"You have to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable, where there are restaurants, where there are bars, where there are bistros, where there are art galleries, where there are photography studios -- which are all open much later than they are today. You have to feel comfortable walking up and down the alleys. You have to feel comfortable staying out and not just rushing back to your car."

Ten years is not a long time, Reeves says as a kind of Grand Center Inc. mantra. He does not believe that the initial concepts of Gaddes and company were overblown. The renovation of the Sun Theatre, for example "still can happen. Right now there's over $80 million that's invested in Grand Center. I would say that over the next three to four years we can double that. The momentum has built." (That $80 million figure is fuzzy at times. In some of Grand Center Inc.'s material, the sum is $60 million, and Ruwitch ballooned it to $100 million in conversation.)

Reeves turns to KETC as the new model for Grand Center redevelopment: "A critical development was the move of KETC. KETC took a risk. Their board was torn. They could have gone to the county or to (University of Missouri-St. Louis). Michael Hardgrove and Ted Garcia were instrumental in choosing Grand Center. Grand Center worked to demolish a couple of small buildings, clean up the environmental problems and clean the site to be able to deliver it."

With a vigorous capital campaign, the station was able to raise the funds for its state-of-the-art facility on Olive.

But is this a "one-size-fits-all" method for development? An affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System, with significant corporate-underwriting support, is not the same as a midsize nonprofit theater or dance troupe. Just as 10 years ago there was an apparent need for restaurants, bistros and bars in Grand Center, the need for an 1,800-2,000 seat performing-arts facility has been severe. Companies such as Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre, The New Theatre (TNT) and the Metro Theatre Company have been the Bedouin nomads of the local arts scene. TNT, for example, has performed in the New City School, Webster University's Studio III, the International Shoe Building, the Annex Theatre and the Grandel in recent years.

These three groups are in very preliminary discussions about transforming the former Medinah Temple into a performing-arts space that could benefit them and other midsize companies in the community. The groups have spoken with Grand Center's redevelopment committee and have six or seven months to put together a strategic plan. Reeves says he's talked with the groups about fundraising, operating expenses and the need to change their board structure. "What they do, they do well," says Reeves. "They're not real-estate developers. They're not supposed to know about tax credits. Many of their boards are focused on the artistic side and not the financial side. Our goal would be to help point out how these things would be practically implemented. It's nice to have a vision, but you have to have a way to put it together, a real plan on how to raise the money and what the feasibility is of the whole project."

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