Council tries to silence theater opponents (Independent Weekly)
info at durhamloop.org
info at durhamloop.org
Thu Jun 10 13:19:58 EDT 2004
Council tries to silence theater opponents
B Y F I O N A M O R G A N
More than 50 people waited for four hours at the Durham City Council meeting
to express their concerns about a proposal to build a $42 million,
4,000-seat performing arts theater downtown. The council's decision was
whether to extend negotiations between the city and a development group for
another four months.
Dozens of people signed up to speak in opposition. They wanted to tell the
city to stop negotiating with Clear Channel Entertainment, a media
conglomerate that would exclusively manage the theater. They wanted to urge
the city council to make long-overdue repairs to the Carolina Theatre the
top priority when spending public money on performing arts venues.
Most of them never got the chance.
Shortly before 11 p.m., Mayor Bill Bell called a vote without allowing a
single public comment on the issue. With that action, the patience of
grassroots activists evaporated along with their faith that city officials
value their input. Bell's refusal to hear public comments before the vote
shocked even veterans of Durham politics. Those who had waited took it as a
Prior meetings between city officials, theater boosters and concerned
citizens had been more than civil. Alan DeLisle, director of the city's
office of economic development, has praised citizens for giving extensive
input on the project. Theater opponents have praised the work of architect
Philip Szostak, who designed and is advocating the project. Members of the
Arts & Business Coalition of Downtown (ABCD) even came away from a meeting
with Bell last month feeling positive.
So why the sudden disrespect?
"I'm just trying to move forward," Bell said to the outraged crowd.
Budget issues dominated the council meeting, drawing two-minute speeches
from approximately 70 people concerned about cuts to after-school gang
prevention programs, faith-based homeless outreach programs, adult literacy
and many other things. There was discussion of the plight of hot dog
vendors, a gate blocking access to a park and the lack of taxicab
But when it came time to discuss the event center, Bell's attitude abruptly
changed. "It's late," he said, adding that the vote was not on whether to
build the theater, but whether to extend consideration. He said extensive
public comment was not necessary to answer that question.
Council member Howard Clement III said he was in favor of the extension,
because it would give the city time to confront Clear Channel over its
alleged bad practices. He said he heard a G105 DJ make a racist comment
about Fantasia Barrino, the winner of American Idol, on the Clear
Channel-owned radio station. "Now if that's typical of Clear Channel's
behavior, then I don't want them in this town."
In the 6-1 vote, only John Best opposed the extension, saying the theater
isn't what Durham needs now. "It's time to scrap this whole thing and start
paying attention to the needs that have accumulated," he said.
"We've been waiting here for four hours!" someone cried after the vote was
taken. Some called out to Diane Catotti, who has expressed concerns about
the theater in the past, to speak up on their behalf. "It's not a done
deal," she said. "We're looking for input."
Bell asked if there was one person who could speak for the group. "No,"
people yelled. After several moments of shouting, Bell agreed to allow 15
minutes of public comment. Activist Caleb Southern, dressed in a white shirt
and tie, approached the podium with his written comments. "The public at
large was not consulted on this," he said. "I urge you to vote against the
extension--or I would have urged you," he continued, "to stop the current
process and look toward starting a new open process in the future that
involves the public and asks the right questions up front."
Rob VanDewoestine presented his own financial analysis of similar theaters,
including the 5,000-seat Dodge Theatre in Phoenix. His charts showed that
public-private venues created using similar models did not generate revenue
for their cities. "Nobody broke even," he said. In fact, most required
expensive public subsidies.
Supporters of the theater proposal say it would not take money out of the
city budget, because the $24 million the city would spend comes from money
raised by the hotel occupancy tax, approved by the legislature specifically
to fund this theater. That money comes with a deadline: Construction must
begin by September 2005.
VanDewoestine said his analysis showed that the project would eventually
drain public funds. "As you lose money on this theater, the money has to
come from somewhere."
As the clock ticked down, Denise VanDeCruze, co-owner of Blue Coffee
Company, spoke up next. "Clear Channel is a huge company with a huge PR
problem that the city is buying at a huge cost," she said. She criticized
the mayor's "circular logic" in extending the consideration: "We've made
this mistake for five years so we might as well make it for another four
Bell tried to cut her off. "I'm going to finish in two minutes, OK?"
VanDeCruze said firmly and continued.
At 11:21, public comment ended. Outside, even the theater's proponents
expressed disbelief at the way things had gone. Szostak, the developer,
approached members of the ABCD group to express his sympathy.
Walking away from city hall, the theater opponents' disbelief turned into a
kind of euphoria. "They just proved our point," Southern said. "This
proposal cannot stand up to public scrutiny."
By Tuesday morning, local listservs were buzzing with the comments people
had hoped to present to the council. Southern encouraged people to e-mail
and call city council members, Bell and local media.
The mayor's office said Tuesday afternoon that it had not received phone
calls about the issue, and that no public hearings have been scheduled yet.
Stay tuned. If Monday's meeting is any indication, the next four months of
debate over the theater will be quite a spectacle.
------------------------ Yahoo! Groups Sponsor --------------------~-->
Yahoo! Domains - Claim yours for only $14.70
Yahoo! Groups Links
<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:
<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:
durhamtown-unsubscribe at yahoogroups.com
<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:
More information about the Ch-scene