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Boosters, critics await Arts Center's opening

With its floor-to-ceiling windows, the $44 million Durham Performing Arts Center will provide a noticeable contrast to the surrounding red brick buildings of downtown Durham's historic American Tobacco Historic District.

As its curtain-raising nears, the center-designed to present the biggest Broadway shows on tour-is already slated to feature "Rent," "The Color Purple" and "Legally Blonde" upon its opening in December 2008 and into 2009.

Backers hope the theater-which will be the biggest venue of its kind in the state-will help Durham brand itself as an arts-oriented community and draw crowds of as many as 2,800 people per show.

Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham, Inc., said he faced a great deal of community concern when he proposed building a theater in the downtown area over six years ago. The project, spearheaded by Kalkhof along with Mayor Bill Bell and center architect and developer Phil Szostak, has gained more acceptance as time went on.

"The most arrows I've ever got in the back about championing a project was the [Durham Bulls Athletic Park]. The Arts Center is a close second," Kalkhof said. "I would assume that four to five years from now... most of the folks who spoke out that we should not build the theater would be hard to find. I would predict it would have the same influence on downtown Durham that the ballpark has had over time."

But Gary Kueber, a Durham resident and blogger for "Endangered Durham," said there are more important revitalization projects that the city could have considered that would better benefit the community than an arts center.

"At this point, it's well on its way, though, so I want it to be successful as much as anyone else-I'll happily be proved wrong about the wisdom of the investment," he wrote in an e-mail. "In the end, it's all about what will build a successful downtown Durham, and it would definitely be a bad thing for downtown were it to fail."

Kalkhof said critics of the Arts Center did not want a large company-project investor Clear Channel-involved in downtown Durham. Others were concerned that the $44 million price tag would be paid with general public funding.

Capital for the project, however, has come from several sources-including a specialized revitalization fund, private donations, naming rights and a $5 million donation from Duke.

The American Dance Festival, hosted on Duke's campus each summer, will also have performances at the venue.

The center's stage was named the Mildred and Dillard Teer Stage last month after a $1.2 million donation from the Teer family, whose name is also on Duke's Nello Teer Building. Additionally, Capitol Broadcasting Company and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina have acquired naming rights.

"This is a milestone for Durham as we have our first naming rights at the Durham Performing Arts Center associated with one of our best known Durham families," Bell said in a press release. "The Teers have done so much to help Durham develop as a quality city and have given back to the community through their extensive civic service over the years."

The closest theater comparable in size to the arts center in the area is the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, which seats approximately 2,200 people. Although there has been a concern of competing theater markets in the Triangle area, Kalkhof said the Arts Center will help establish a theater district in downtown Durham.

"[Raising] the level of arts and culture in Durham should benefit everybody," he said. "We are working on a plan to create the concept of a theater district with DPAC, the Carolina Theatre, the [Durham] Arts Council and smaller theaters, like Manbites Dog Theater... We think all those things combined will be complimentary. Having said that, are we going to bump into each other along the way? Yeah, we will and we'll work through those things."

Aaron Bare, director of marketing and communications for the Carolina Theatre, said he believes there is enough interest in arts and the theater within the Triangle to fill the seats at all the theaters, and that they will complement each other well.

"I do think the idea of a theater district is extremely feasible. In fact, not only is it feasible, but that's where we're heading," he said. "There's an unbelievable groundswell of artistic appreciation in Durham. And the Arts Center and the Carolina Theatre will benefit from that."

Since its groundbreaking in December 2006, the Art Center's construction has remained on schedule and on budget, according to city reports.

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