Exit Stage Right 

The long road to CenterStage's opening was filled with politics, economic pressures, public money and a last-minute detour.

Correction: In the print version of this story, we incorrectly listed the amount of meals-tax money the arts foundation received. While the foundation submitted invoices for $12 million to the city to cover pre-construction costs from 2003 to 2005, it received only $7.6 million. The last city disbursement to the foundation was made in October 2004. Style Weekly has corrected the figure in this online version of the story, and regrets the error.

2-21-01. The date was etched onto individual tiles from the long-shuttered Thalhimers department store at Seventh and Broad streets and handed out to business leaders gathered at the Carpenter Center in February 2001. Formed from within the ranks of Richmond Renaissance, a foundation had been created to oversee construction of a multimillion-dollar performing arts complex downtown. The foundation's newly christened chairman, Jim Ukrop, saw the tiles as a historical marker: Finally, Richmond would get a grand anchor to complete East Broad Street's makeover.

There was the $170 million convention center, $66.7 million in streetscape and utility improvements (including the demolition of the 6th Street Marketplace bridge) and a $110 million renovation of the former Miller & Rhoads. The cherry on top would be a dazzling performing arts center where Thalhimers once stood for more than $168 million.

It wasn't to be. The complex eventually was scaled back to its current plan, essentially a $73.4 million renovation of the Carpenter Center with a new playhouse and a multipurpose performance and gallery space tossed in for good measure. It's a welcome addition for local arts groups and potential audiences, but retrofitting a former theater hardly qualifies as the economic savior Ukrop and company envisioned in 2001.

Blame the changing politics at City Hall, and the foundation's numerous missteps. Problems first arose in the fundraising arena, which started right out of the gate. Nine months after the foundation launched, terrorists struck the World Trade Center and sent the economy into a tailspin. During the next two years Brad Armstrong, the foundation's chief executive, blamed 9/11 at seemingly every turn for the foundation's inability to raise private funds, placing a heavy burden on finding public dollars.

The foundation commandeered a hike in the city meals tax to help jump-start the public kitty, which kicked in about $7.6 million by 2004. But that was before Mayor L. Douglas Wilder took office in January 2005. Political theater ensued as Wilder almost immediately began attacking the project and its backers, in particular Ukrop and Armstrong (see Style's cover story, "Pomp and Circumstances," in June 2005). cover story, Plans for a 1,200-seat music hall were abandoned after millions of dollars had been spent on its design. City Council eventually agreed to give $25 million in capital funds to pay for the Carpenter Center's renovation. As of last week, Richmond CenterStage had collected $24,765,958 of that $25 million. Taxpayers coughed up more, including $8.5 million from the state, $1.2 million in federal funds, not to mention tapping $12 million in historic tax credits for what is now the Carpenter Theatre.

The city is still on the hook. Two years ago, City Council also agreed to pay for CenterStage's operations to the tune of $500,000 a year (a matching grant). There's no sunset on that commitment, which means taxpayers will fund the project for many years to come. Considering the city's history of mismanagement and big empty downtown saviors, it's still early to declare CenterStage a dream fulfilled. S

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