You’ve been assured the Visitor Tax isn’t a new tax, or one you’ll ever have to pay — as long as you stay away from rental cars and hotels. `See “Welcome to San Antonio,” March 26-April 1.` But, damn, not being a Spurs fan, you’ve hardly used the AT&T Center they built for you last go-round. What will a consent vote net you this time? If you’re a classical-music or dance fan — or a recruiter of Fortune-500 companies — perhaps a destiny-changing building.
About a quarter of the $415-million proposed venue-tax extension, which will appear on the ballot at the May 10 Joint and Special Election, is slated to fund remaking the Municipal Auditorium into a dedicated Performing Arts Center with versatile performance halls, River Walk access through a glass atrium, and a gift shop. It would give the Majestic-cramped Symphony and the itinerant opera a place to call home.
The PAC, say supporters, would benefit local music, dance, and theater groups by offering affordable stage, office, and storage space. A venue of this caliber could also attract larger touring acts, which would help cover its maintenance and operating costs — although it wouldn’t compete with such Majestic bread and butter as the Broadway Across America series, says PAC consultant Bud Franks, who authored an operations business plan for the committee assigned to develop the ballot proposal.
The 69-year-old San Antonio Symphony says it is desperately in need of a new locale. “We have 18 weeks per year in the Majestic and are capable of playing 180 weeks,” said Carolyn Bacon, VP of Marketing. “The musicians can’t get enough play time.”
The issue, says Symphony President and CEO David Green, is that the Symphony works 196 days, including its classical, pops, and educational-outreach performances, but can only use the Majestic approximately 72 days. If the opportunity arises to bring in a special guest performer, for instance, they have to move to another location, such as the current Municipal Auditorium or the Lila Cockrell Theatre — each with some combination of parking, seating, and acoustical drawbacks.
The Symphony will also need additional performance days to meet its obligations under the new players’ contract, which calls for the current 27 weeks of performances to grow to 30 by the 2010-11 season. “The real world is, every year you go on this contract and add a week, where are you going to play?” said Green.
Plans for the Municipal Auditorium makeover call for a 2,000-seat main stage that can be converted to approximately 1,700 seats, a smaller 250-450-seat performance hall, and rehearsal space. The building would also be LEED Silver certified as part of the county’s new green-building mandate.
Skip Wood, president of Las Casas, the non-profit that manages the Majestic and Empire theaters, says Las Casas wishes the new PAC well, but would like to see it renovated to the smaller size. `Disclosure: Elaine Wolff’s husband,
Michael Westheimer, sits on the Las Casas board.`
“Las Casas’ position is that we support the Performing Arts Center,” said Wood, “but at a size that makes sense for the Symphony and Opera.” Las Casas isn’t worried about the new venues poaching performances from the 2,300-seat Majestic or the flexible-use 825-seat Empire, he says. But he reminds the Current that much of the Majestic finishing work completed in 1995 was to meet the Symphony’s needs — and the audience’s musical experience is still what Green calls “muffled.”
“As we all know,” said Wood, “to be appreciated to the fullest, it should be a 1600-to-1800-seat hall ... If the County builds another 2,000-seat venue, then it doesn’t seem to make it useful for the Symphony and Opera.”
Although some performance-hall experts say a 2,000-seat venue isn’t necessarily optimal for symphonic performances, Green says it’s not a black-and-white issue.
“There has been a ton of work done across the U.S. on multi-use venues,” he said, and he’s confident that the County can build an acoustically suitable facility that can meet the business plan’s financial goals. Audiences, he says, will have a more musically rewarding experience than they do now, and the better the product, to put it in blunt commercial terms, the more of it
“Last week, for instance, we had invited several board members to sit on stage for rehearsal,” Green said. “You do not hear that sound in the audience `at the Majestic` ... it’s much more alive and vibrant.” He expects to be able to deliver an experience closer to that quality at the new PAC.
The proposed PAC design also includes a 250-450-seat studio theater for chamber concerts and other more-intimate performances, a feature that is appealing to some of the city’s smaller cultural presenters.
“When Riverdance came to San Antonio, they filled the Majestic,” said Nelda Drury, founder of the San Antonio Folk Dance Festival. “There are not that many dance groups able to draw that big of an audience in San Antonio.” But, she says, the smaller space could be ideal for some of SAFDF’s events, as well as other local dance groups. “Sometimes we wanted to bring in modern-dance groups that have a more limited audience — anywhere from 400 to 1,000 `seats` would be perfect.”
For mid-size events, the new PAC might not fit the bill, but as Drury talks about a recent Serbian dance group that filled a thousand-seat theater at SAC, she touches on another touted advantage of the proposed PAC.
“Sometimes it depends on the publicity,” Drury said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get publicity, sometimes it’s easy.”
Though the Symphony’s audiences and budget may outstrip SAFDF, the organizations share a need for greater public exposure.
“The Symphony has a hard time breaking through the clutter of media and just getting into the consciousness of San Antonio,” Green said, adding only half-jokingly that more people know about the May 10 ballot initiative than know about the Symphony. The PAC, he believes, would change that, both through greater public exposure, and by offering higher-profile fundraising opportunities.
“One of the things I’ve come to learn in this business,” he says, “is that the success of the Symphony, any symphony in the U.S., is to get people who never come to a performance to
support you.” •
PAC sound bites
Seems like most everybody wants a new Performing Arts Center, paid for with hotel and car-rental taxes, and designed to put SA on the national cultural-tourism map (as if Contemporary Art Month hadn’t accomplished that already ;-` ). The May 10 ballot initiative proposes devoting $100 million to the project, to be matched by $42 million in private-sector funds, $10 million of which would be dedicated to an operating-fund endowment (a number consultant Bud Franks says will need to go up).
Here are a few salient quotes about the PAC that didn’t make it into the above story.
“The Spurs could play in an airforce hangar in the old Kelly base and we could see just fine. The question is, would more people go if they have the AT&T Center, and I think the answer is yes.”
— David Green, San Antonio Symphony CEO
“Performing-arts demand is totally dependent on quality. You bring in the Boston Pops and it will sell out. You bring in the Podunk Symphony Orchestra and they’ll be lucky if they sell 600 seats.”
— Florida consultant Jeff Prutsman
“These buildings rarely make it at the box office. They’re for a higher good for the community. Like a library.”
— Bud Franks, Franks & Associates