Nothin' Could Be Fina Than to Be in the Medinah

Grand Center dishes out some not-so-grand treatment to local arts groups

Way back when St. Louis 2004 was seeking to define the city's potential, one of the places on which it fixed its wise-consultants' mark was the Medinah Temple. St. Louis 2004, as is its pattern, told people what they already knew: There's a critical need for a midsize performance space to serve the needs of local performing-arts groups and their audiences; otherwise, those groups go on persistent, desperate wanderings each season in search of spaces in which to rehearse and perform, and their audiences do likewise, wondering where The New Theatre (TNT) might be this year.

TNT, of course, isn't anywhere anymore: They had to shut down a year or so ago because of too many debts they hadn't paid -- a situation caused, at least in part, by the nomadic existence they endured. Finding those rehearsal and performance spaces strains the already scant resources of a midsize company. The St. Louis 2004 arts consultants recognized this and so acknowledged the artistic need and designated the Medinah, a cozy little four-story on a block of Olive Street just east of Grand Boulevard, as the solution to the city's performing-arts woes. In so doing, they also determined that a renovation of Kiel Opera House would be a bad choice to make for the cultural invigoration of the city -- unfeasible, inadequate load-in and so on. St. Louis 2004 thus let the owners of Kiel Center (now Savvis Center, now owned by the Lauries) off the hook for promises made years ago to renovate the Opera House and, as Ed Golterman contends (that voice in the wilderness that starts to make more sense in contrast to the nonsense of the status quo), protected the performing-arts organizations in Grand Center from any undue competition.

Grand Center Inc. owns the Medinah, and because it is that organization's charge to make the Grand Center area St. Louis' "premier arts, entertainment and education district" (as their own PR proclaims), it would seem that the St. Louis 2004 spotlight on the Medinah would have motivated Grand Center Inc. to make it so: Invest some capital, corral some tax credits, do some fundraising, work toward facilitating a performing-arts consortium and then have a grand-opening night in Grand Center. It wasn't as if this was a new idea. Even further way back when, in the days when Richard Gaddes headed Grand Center Inc., in the early '90s, he talked of renovating the Medinah to provide what was then perceived as much-needed space for rehearsals and performances, art classes and educational programs.

So, it seemed, the time was ripe for action. And Grand Center Inc. -- as is its pattern -- offered up the Medinah for $1. All any willing performing-arts groups had to do was raise money for feasibility studies -- for as wise as those St. Louis 2004 consultants were purported to be, they really hadn't investigated the architectural integrity of the Medinah, or accessibility issues, or whether this idea would really work -- and then raise an estimated $2.5 million for the renovation. They could then hold that grand-opening night in Grand Center and smile through their gritted teeth as they watched the Grand Center Inc. crowd pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

A few performing-arts groups took up the offer anyway, despite the daunting task ahead. Metro Theater Company, Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre, TNT, and Joan Lipkin and That Uppity Theatre Company started holding meetings to try to sort it all out. Lipkin left the alliance early on because the road ahead looked to be too difficult and too risky. TNT folded. That left Metro and Gash/Voigt, two highly regarded companies -- locally, nationally and internationally -- which are lucky to have staff to stuff envelopes, much less figure out a scheme to raise $2.5 million while they, in the meantime, do what artists are supposed to do -- make art.

But the two companies -- who align themselves under the name City Arts -- have been making a go of it, slowly, apprehensively. A grant for a feasibility study didn't come through, Metro toured Japan, Gash/Voigt just left for Greece and Turkey -- and the Medinah, inevitably, stays on hold.

A couple of weeks ago, though, Joan Briccetti of Metro Theater gave Tom Turner, acting director of Grand Center Inc., a call, just to check and see that City Arts still had the option on the building. According to Briccetti, Turner told her yes, no problem.

So, says Briccetti, "I was a little surprised" to read an article in the Post-Dispatch on Oct. 1 reporting that Grand Center Inc. had offered the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) two floors of the Medinah for office space to keep the organization from moving out of the district.

Briccetti was surprised but not "reactive," she says, "because nothing really surprises me about what I hear about Grand Center. I learned long ago that if you listen long enough, there's always a surprise." She does think, however, given that she'd spoken to Turner just a few days before the article appeared, "that little bit of information would have been helpful, especially as we're trying to generate funds to do a feasibility study." Resilient, and nonreactive, Briccetti says the article "amused me."

Briccetti is even more amused to learn that not only did Grand Center Inc. offer two floors of the Medinah to RAC, it offered to pay for the renovation. Apparently Grand Center Inc., when it looked as if the organization was going to lose one of its higher-profile tenants, was ready to offer more than a dilapidated building for $1.

They weren't exactly swift off the mark with this offer, either. According to RAC executive director Jill McGuire, RAC has been looking for space since March of 1999. With RAC suffering growing pains because of additional staff, and with their five-year lease ending in June 2000, McGuire didn't make it a secret that the agency needed to move. Grand Center Inc. actually gave them a tour of possibilities within the district, says McGuire, including the Beaux Arts Building, the Humboldt Building, the old Woolworths and the Continental.

It's hard to figure what Grand Center Inc. actually thought they were offering RAC, because none of those buildings is even close to being ready for a tenant and, says McGuire, there was "no movement on development and no guarantee on being done by the summer of 2000."

But when RAC narrowed its search to two locations on Washington Avenue and one on Laclede's Landing, all outside the Grand Center district, in came Turner and Grand Center Inc.'s director of real estate, Jim Holtzman, with another plan: the first two floors of the Medinah.

Grand Center Inc., says McGuire, offered to pay for the complete renovation of the first two floors of the building, which RAC would be allowed to completely spec out with regard to how many offices and conference rooms were needed. Unfortunately, it would take at least 12 months for the renovation to be done, and RAC absolutely must be out of its space by the end of 2000.

McGuire, being exceedingly politic, says that Grand Center Inc.'s offer is an example that "a real sense of urgency" exists in the organization now: "I sense that from Tom Turner and Jim Holtzman both."

Yet Turner and Holtzman knew of RAC's search for space in March '99, wasted everybody's time with tours of buildings everybody knew were a long way from finished redevelopment, then, as RAC was getting ready to pack, suddenly remembered the Medinah, a building Grand Center Inc. has owned since coming into existence more than a decade ago.

A real sense of delinquency, rather than urgency, is a more appropriate judgment of Turner and Holtzman.

When asked about RAC and the Medinah, Holtzman offers no comment. Turner does not return calls.

Briccetti -- who, until she read the Post-Dispatch, thought she still had an option on the Medinah as a performing-arts space -- has a few words to say, though. More than a year after St. Louis 2004's pronouncement and Grand Center Inc.'s dithering, she says, "I personally would like to know, once and for all, is the Medinah going to be suitable or is it not going to be suitable for our needs? I would like to know, and I would like to know from people who really know about theaters.

"We need to know fundamental issues about access for load-in of sets, capacity for rehearsals, as well as performances, storage space, accessibility for audiences.

"We're looking for focus. We're looking for some real-estate venture capital, because we need to reassess to see if it's appropriate. We know that comes first. If it's appropriate, it's a great spot. If it's not appropriate to our needs, and to most groups who need a midsize-capacity theater, we will look for something else, whether it be in Grand Center or in the Loop, or another place that fits our criteria. It's not rocket science."

And yet, now that TNT has folded and the St. Marcus Theatre has closed, performing-arts companies still find themselves scrambling for homes. "Why is this so damn hard?" Briccetti asks. "Artists need good facilities; they need good tools. I know -- it's too logical, too simple."