Residents on Tuesday seized another opportunity to weigh in on a proposal for Carrboro to contribute $7.5 million toward a new building to house the ArtsCenter and a local children’s museum.
People packed Carrboro Town Hall for Tuesday night’s public hearing, the second in as many weeks as the Board of Aldermen sought public input on the proposed public-private partnership.
Many speakers lauded the ArtsCenter as a community institution. But many also raised concerns, ranging from traffic bottlenecks and parking scarcities to unease about the long-term stability of the ArtsCenter’s finances.
Patrick McDonough, a resident who writes a blog about local urban planning issues, was one of more than a dozen people who spoke. He urged the ArtsCenter to provide more details about the project.
“I think the dominant mood is we want this, and we want it done right,” McDonough said.
The ArtsCenter and the Kidzu Children’s Museum are asking the town to fund half the cost of construction for a 55,000-square-foot Carrboro Arts and Innovation Center on what is now a parking lot at the corner of East Main and Roberson streets, across from the Armadillo Grill, according to the proposal that planners presented during a Board of Aldermen meeting last month. The owner of that lot, Main Street Properties, would donate the land to the town, which would then lease it to the two nonprofit organizations.
The building would allow the ArtsCenter and Kidzu to relocate into the same location and offer more theater, classroom and exhibition space, according to the proposal. Meanwhile, Main Street Properties would build a hotel to replace the ArtsCenter at 300-G E. Main St. The property and room occupancy taxes generated from that hotel would fund Carrboro’s contribution to the project, negating the need for a tax increase.
Virginia Queen Danford, who has worked at the ArtsCenter for 11 years, said additional space would allow the organization to expand programs and make a bigger impact. “It would be a dream,” she said at the hearing.
Planners have estimated the cost of the new center’s construction at about $15 million, including $3 million for exhibits, according to the proposal. If the town kicks in half, the ArtsCenter and Kidzu said they could raise the remainder through corporate donations, naming rights and philanthropic grants and gifts. If approved, construction is scheduled to start in August 2016.
Supporters of the proposal said they are confident the project would materialize despite hesitation from the community, and they expressed a desire for public feedback so planners know what issues need to be addressed.
“Even though there’s been negative comments, I feel pretty good about what I hear in the community,” said Philip Szostak, an ArtsCenter board member. “There have been a lot of positive reactions to the proposal.”
Members of the public have been vocal with their opinions.
Mayor Lydia Lavelle said more than 60 people signed up to speak at the first public hearing on Jan. 20. It was such a large turnout that town leaders decided to hold the second hearing Tuesday.
Szostak said the ArtsCenter would ask the Orange County Board of Commissioners for a contribution if Carrboro decides not to donate the whole $7.5 million.
“Right now, we’re having public hearings with Carrboro, but Orange County could certainly be part of that,” Szostak said. “We just want to see what Carrboro wants to do first.”
Szostak is also an architect whose firm, Szostak Design Inc., designed the Durham Performing Arts Center. He developed drawings showing what the Carrboro Arts and Innovation Center could look like. The drawings show a four-story building with three theaters and lots of windows to let in sunlight.
While Szostak released those drawings to give residents an idea of what to expect, he said the concept could change. “This isn’t the final deal that we’re putting on the table,” he said.
The ArtsCenter estimates that it generates $3.5 million in annual economic activity. Supporters have used that figure as a selling point for the new building, saying the organization’s impact would rise as a result. They also said a more visible and attractive space would bolster Carrboro’s reputation as a champion of the artistic community.
Noel James, the ArtsCenter’s interim executive director, said the bigger building would draw more people downtown. “It would create this synergy and reinforce the thinking that this is an arts town,” she said.
Art Menius, who served as the ArtsCenter’s executive director for more than two years before resigning in August, said the organization has expanded its reach since moving to its current location nearly 30 years ago. But it needs extra room to keep up with population growth and rising interest in the arts.
“Although many of our programs and services are the same, we’re serving many thousands more people than we were in the late 1980s, and we’re aggressively moving to serve people out in the county and in the school system,” he said.
Beyond the extra capacity that a larger building affords, James said the new center would also resolve longstanding cosmetic issues. Today’s ArtsCenter is located in a retrofitted former grocery store with a leaky roof and electrical wiring problems.
In the ArtsCenter’s ceramics studio last Thursday before the second public hearing, four students and a volunteer studio assistant talked about the proposal while hunched over their pottery wheels. They all welcomed the idea of greater room and more visibility, saying such a change would spur interest in their craft.
“We definitely would love more space,” said student Andrea Treimel as she fastened handles on a clay casserole dish. “That would be wonderful.”
“With natural light,” added Tamara Sanders, the assistant.
But some residents remain skeptical. Critics questioned how the downtown could accommodate increases in traffic and parking demand. Some are unconvinced that Carrboro can cover the cost with new revenues, pointing out that the hotel has not been approved. And others expressed fear about what kind of effect the development would have on the Cat’s Cradle, a famous music club whose owner said is badly in need of more space.
Diana Garcia, who bought her house in Carrboro last year, said she was concerned about building another hotel when she sees so many empty storefronts in town. “I guess what I’m saying is bigger’s not better, and this is a small town,” she told the Board of Aldermen. “I think we need to remember the human scale of things.”
Sara Smith, a resident who wrote town leaders an email expressing her concerns about the project, said in a telephone interview that she feels the process is moving too quickly.
“I just wanted them to slow down and see what Carrboro really needs,” she said.
Lavelle emphasized that no commitment had been made. She said town leaders would meet in two weeks to formally discuss the proposal.
“I think it has a lot of potential, and it’s really exciting. I’m excited that our board is considering it,” Lavelle said. “But there are valid concerns that we have to have addressed before we move forward with it.”