The project was conceived by a coalition of more than 30 diverse performing-arts organizations in the community, studied by consultants they hired and put into a master plan about five years ago. They brought to the attention of the public that the Richmond community did not have decent performing-arts facilities.
At the same time, the city and Richmond Renaissance were trying to determine what could be done about the abysmal condition of Broad Street in light of the fact that a $160 million expansion of the Convention Center was underway. Studies of the impact that performing-arts facilities had on comparable cities, such as Columbus, Pittsburgh and Newark, proved that the economic-development impact of such facilities was substantial. So the city and some business leaders got behind the project to accomplish the dual goal of cleaning up Broad Street and providing badly needed facilities for local performing-arts organizations. The Virginia Performing Arts Foundation was formed as the umbrella under which the project would be developed. A board of business and community leaders was recruited because of the need to raise a substantial amount of private capital.
The project is a community project for the benefit of the community. There is ample evidence of this fact:
City Council unanimously extended the fund-raising deadline for the project. Members of council are very much in tune with their constituencies and know that the project has wide support in their districts. They have made a number of public statements to that effect.
A recent poll by the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed that 83 percent of Richmonders support the project, including more than 90 percent of African-Americans.
Opus, a group of more than 150 Richmonders younger than 40, has sprung up spontaneously to support the project by staging fund-raising events. Two weeks ago the group presented the Performing Arts Foundation with $10,000 that it had raised.
As the result of one mailing in early August (the first general public appeal), more than $75,000 in contributions have been mailed in to date from more than 700 different people from across the Richmond area.
So the populist rhetoric of "elitist project" and "corporate welfare" is ridiculous. Think about it: What does a businessman or woman get from this? The right to make a large contribution? The joy that comes from getting pilloried in irresponsible blogs and in the media? We are very fortunate in this city to have business leaders who are willing to unselfishly spend their time addressing a demonstrated community need.
There is always a risk in public debates that focus is lost. We need to remember the reasons why this project has received such broad community support:
We are blessed with a number of fine performing-arts organizations. They need and deserve adequate facilities in which to perform.
The project will generate a substantial economic return to the city. Studies by Virginia Commonwealth University economists show that the project will generate more than $1.5 million in taxes annually in excess of the city's contribution, and create hundreds of new jobs.
The vacant, ugly hulk of the Thalhimers building will be replaced with a beautiful new theater complex, and a major impediment to the success of the Convention Center will be turned instead into a drawing card.
The project includes a performing arts education program for children. It is well documented that students who have the opportunity to participate in performing-arts education, like music and dance, do much better is math, in science and on their standardized test scores.
One further misconception needs to be addressed. Questions have been raised about the level of operating costs being incurred by the Foundation. The board of the Foundation watches the costs carefully. In fact, compared with any other comparable performing arts project under development in the country, the Foundation's operating and fund-raising costs are considerably lower. The real issue the Foundation is facing is whether it has adequate staff to raise the money and complete construction. It will continue to be frugal in all phases of its operations.
The Virginia Performing Arts Foundation is a partnership between the city and the arts organizations, which has involved some community leaders, to raise a bunch of money from private sources. Substantial progress has been made toward its goals. The community is counting on the foundation to complete the project and give Richmond something of which it can be proud. SJohn Bates, a partner at McGuireWoods LLP, is a board member of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation. He was the Style Weekly Richmonder of the Year in 2002.
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