Keeping the Faith 

After his most challenging year at the Carpenter Center, Joel Katz steers the landmark confidently into the future.

More than seven years ago, Katz was brought on board to lead the venerable landmark into a new age. Before his arrival, the Carpenter Center was chiefly the home of Richmond's symphony, opera and ballet, but offered no original programming.

During his tenure, Katz has developed the "Many Worlds, One Community" series that explores multiculturalism, bringing such artists as the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Peking Acrobats to town. He also pushed for family and education programming like "Sesame Street Live," along with booking high-profile music and comedy acts, including Jackson Browne and Tori Amos, and comedians Janeane Garofalo and Dave Chappelle.

Katz says he had to convince the Carpenter Center's board of directors to start taking risks in programming to keep the theater a viable venue and to attract people downtown. It's still not an easy task. The theater sits at Sixth and Grace streets, not a visitor-friendly area because of a scarcity of parking and desolate surroundings at night.

"When I came to town, I was put in the middle of a situation, running a beautiful theater wedged between two closed department stores and not in a great neighborhood," Katz says. "At that time, the neighborhood had really bottomed out and no one seemed willing to come downtown."

Attracting theatergoers still remains a priority, but the past year has been tough. Sniper attacks, snow storms, a bad economy and war have taken a toll on the box office, Katz says. Ticket sales have been significantly down, he says, and if he had known earlier what was in store, he might have rethought some of his ideas for the diamond jubilee.

"Let me put it this way: The last year has been the most challenging in my career," he says. "[Yet] you can't dry up and blow away; you gotta keep doing what you're doing and attract a lot of attention to the Carpenter Center."

The theater has attracted a lot of attention — not just for its performances, but for its part in the development of the Virginia Performing Arts Center, a huge project that will see the old Thalhimers department store torn down and, possibly, two new theaters erected in its place.

Brad Armstrong, president and CEO of the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, works closely with Katz and says the Carpenter Center will be the jewel in the crown of the new complex.

"The Carpenter Center has kept the light on in a decayed part of downtown," he says. "It's the shining light down there." Armstrong credits Katz's business sense and creativity for keeping the theater financially healthy even in lean times.

Yet the future of the Carpenter Center and its position as a downtown attraction are linked to development plans for the area and the fund-raising campaign initiated by the VPAF. So far, the foundation has raised 12 percent — $12.7 million of its $105 million goal — to open the new arts center by 2007.

"It's going to be tight, but the deadline has always been tight," Armstrong says. "From the time we begin construction, it will take about 30 months to complete it. Our hope is that we can be open for the 2007 Jamestown Celebration when we have to have the Virginia capital looking great."

Katz has no reservations about the development plans and says that within two to four years the entire neighborhood will see a turnaround. This reversal of fortune also will be helped by the new Community Development Authority authorized by Richmond City Council, he says. The CDA will target the entire neighborhood for improvements by issuing $65 million in bonds as early as May 15.

The bond money is expected to eventually generate enough income to create new parking lots, purchase existing parking decks, improve streetscapes, provide utilities and demolish the 6th Street Marketplace. The bonds will be repaid primarily through revenue generated by the new parking facilities and through assessments on office and retail space within the improved area. Construction is planned to start this summer.

The ambitious project begins at a dismal time financially for a lot of people. Yet Katz believes the money is out there. He says there are many philanthropic people who will be willing to give, and he will not borrow any money to jump-start renovations. He seems to believe that the welfare of the Carpenter Center will rally people to open their wallets. "It's a landmark," he says. "This theater is deeply seated in the hearts and minds of every Richmonder."

And with that in mind, the shows will go on. S

For a full listing of events scheduled for the 75th anniversary celebration, visit www.carpentercenter.org or call 225-9000. Highlights include performances by pianist George Winston (May 6) and funnyman Jackie Mason (May 7). There also is a photography exhibition, "75 Years Entertaining Richmond" in the reception hall through June 29 and there will be a screening of the silent film "West Point," which opened the theater in 1928 (May 9).

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