As city officials hammer out their plan for what to include in a performing arts center to anchor the proposed Civic Center, they are starting to consider how best to run the place once it’s built.
During a Sandy Springs City Council discussion on Oct. 21, members raised questions about how the center would best be governed and how to pay for its operation once it opens.
Mayor Rusty Paul said the council must decide whether the center should be considered a community amenity to be subsidized or an entertainment facility that should pay its own way.
“This is a crucial political question we’ll have to deal with,” Paul said. “If you don’t like saying ‘no’ [to some groups that want to use the facility], you’ll have to write a check. What is this facility’s primary purpose?”
During the meeting, council members agreed that a large hall in a performing arts center may contain up to 1,350 seats – 350 more than the council had approved in the past. Consultants working on the proposed multi-use hall said discussions with a wide variety of arts and community groups showed a demand for the larger hall.
“This is what the community said they wanted,” Paul said at the end of the 4-1/2-hour discussion at Heritage Green. “We gave the designers [of the proposed facility] more flexibility to see what can be accommodated within the footprint and the budget.”
Council members said they wanted to keep the cost of the project within the budget already approved for it, which means spending about $40 million, including about $15 million in private donations, on the performing arts center. The city’s overall City Center plan, which includes meeting space, offices, parking and road improvements, is estimated to cost up to $196.6 million.
The performing arts building, council members said, also is limited by the space available for it at the planned complex, which is to be built on land near the intersection of Johnson Ferry and Roswell roads. Council members said they did not want the designers to add a third tier of seats to the theater in order to expand its capacity.
Consultant Rick Davis told the council that the performing arts center should include both the larger, multi-use theater and a smaller hall, of about 5,000 square feet, that could be used for various types of performances, dinners and receptions or for City Council meetings.
Davis also recommended the center should have an “iconic interior and exterior design that captures the essence of Sandy Springs.” He said the building should include rehearsal areas, provide an orchestra pit in the large hall and state-of-the-art digital projectors for film.
During the meeting, consultant Tom Williams of the Venue Solutions Group outlined several ways the facility could be managed. He said the building could be run by the city, by a management company hired by the city or by a combination of city and private operation. In its report, the consultant recommended hiring an outside group – either a for-profit firm or a nonprofit group — to manage the facility.
Williams said the city could negotiate how much control a management company would have over the types of performances and the use of the building for community groups that presumably would not pay as much as traveling shows and concerts. “If a management company assumes all the risks, they want the lion’s share of profits and a relatively free hand in booking events,” he said.
Council Andy Bauman questioned how much the city government would be involved in programming. “Art is changing, but one constant is the ability to be edgy as it relates to race and sex,” he said. “I don’t want to be on a City Council one day making those qualitative judgments.”
But Paul said the city would set policies to be followed. And he said the city should maintain control of the facility. “At all times, the elected officials are in ultimate control of city facilities,” Paul said. “No matter how you’re structured, the elected officials will have final control.”