Publisher's note: The author of this post is Sam A. Hieb, who is a contributor to the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.
Venue will replace War Memorial Coliseum, could pose risk to taxpayers
GREENSBORO By a 6-3 vote, the Greensboro City Council approved a memorandum of understanding with a local nonprofit that paves the way for a new $65 million downtown performing arts center.
Council members Tony Wilkins, Marikay Abuzuaiter, and Sharon Hightower voted "no."
Debate grew heated when Wilkins repeatedly questioned ongoing costs to the taxpayers over the years.
"This is a blank check," Wilkins said. "You can call it whatever you want, but it's a blank check. We need to tell citizens that."
According to the memorandum of understanding, the city will provide $30 million toward the project while the nonprofit Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro will provide $35 million through private donations.
The Community Foundation will take out a loan to cover its share of the cost while it secures the donations. When questions about covering any fundraising shortfalls arose during debate, Community Foundation president Walker Sanders assured the council "the bank will not look to the city should there be donor default."
The memorandum of understanding states the city "will serve as project manager to oversee the design and construction" of the performing arts center, which is officially named the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, after the president and CEO of Tanger Factory Outlet Centers, the largest individual donor to the project.
The Community Foundation, meanwhile, will create a "donor building committee" that will work with the city on the design and construction of the venue.
The memorandum also states the donor building committee "shall have approval rights over the design contracts, the final design of the Tanger Center, the construction budget, and all material changes made during the course of construction to the previously approved final design and/or construction budget."
The city and the Community Foundation will form another nonprofit "that will have overall responsibility for overseeing the success" of the performing arts center.
While the performing arts center will be managed on a day-to-day basis by Greensboro Coliseum director Matt Brown, the proposed nonprofit will be managed by a board of directors comprising four representatives from the city: the mayor, the city manager, and two City Council members.
Private donors will have four seats on the board of directors, and last but not least there will be five at-large members "who will be selected jointly" by city and private donor representatives.
The memorandum also states the city "will retain all revenue generated by the Tanger Center ... and will be responsible for all expenses incurred in operating the Tanger Center."
Also stated in the memorandum is the imposition of a $1 ticket surcharge on all events in order to create an "arts stabilization fund" to be allocated annually by the nonprofit Arts Greensboro. The stabilization fund will "exclusively provide direct financial assistance to local professional arts organizations."
The new performing arts center will replace War Memorial Auditorium, which is part of the Greensboro Coliseum complex.
War Memorial has fallen into disrepair over the years, and voters twice have rejected bond referendums to renovate the 57-year-old venue.
City leaders say Greensboro needs a venue seating between 2,000 and 3,000 as a buffer between the 20,000-seat coliseum and smaller venues such as the 1,000-seat Carolina Theatre.
But cost to the taxpayers over the years is a real issue, one that City Council members who support the performing arts center concede.
"It's a risk, but it's a calculated risk," Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan told Carolina Journal. "Can we say we're definitely not going to lose money? No."
The John Locke Foundation has studied tax-financed entertainment venues for years. In its 2014 City-County Guide, JLF director of regulatory studies Jon Sanders urges public officials to "resist using taxpayer funds to subsidize private ventures, especially vanity projects. ... Put simply, if it was a viable project, some entrepreneurs would have recognized the opportunity well before elected officials whose expertise lies elsewhere."
Instead of serving to revitalize the local economy, such "vanity projects" instead become an "unnecessary weight slowing it down."
The performing arts center is another in a long line of incentivized projects in downtown Greensboro.
Earlier this year the City Council approved a $1.95 million incentive for a proposed downtown luxury hotel. And late last year the previous council approved a $1.5 million forgivable loan for the International Civil Rights Museum.
Vaughan told CJ she believes such investments not only will help keep young professionals in Greensboro but also will attract job creators.
"Corporations look at the center city to see if it's thriving," she said.