Developers pin downtown hopes on new theater

Who better to open Durham's regal new performing arts hall than a King and a Legend?

That's reigning blues monarch B.B. King, who breaks the Durham Performing Arts Center in with a concert Nov. 30, and John Legend, who headlines the Dec. 13 Inauguration Celebration. The big names are meant to match one of the biggest projects in downtown Durham's ongoing revitalization efforts.

DPAC, seating 2,800 and coming in with a $45.8 million price tag, follows the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the American Tobacco Historic District and West Village as major developments intended to re-energize the center of the city.

Developers hope the venue will not only thrive in its own right, bringing in national names in music, Broadway and comedy, but will also prop up the rest of the Durham arts scene.

"If we're successful, everyone's going to be successful," said Philip Szostak, principal of the Chapel Hill-based architecture firm Szostak Design and one of DPAC's developers along with Texas firm Garfield Traub. "A year or two years ago, you never heard about Durham as a place for the arts, and it seems like every Sunday now there's a newspaper article about Durham and the arts."

Some of the funding from naming rights and other revenue streams, he said, will go to Durham arts groups, including the St. Joseph's Historic Foundation and the Durham Arts Council.

The public face of DPAC-its glass lobby-is meant to mimic a Japanese lantern, Szostak said.

"At night and in the daytime it changes," he said. "What is light on the outside in the daytime, which is the frosted glass, and what is dark during the day, which is the clear glass, turns bright at night. It's a symbolic gesture of what happens when people come in at night and light it up."

Szostak also trumpeted the cost efficiency of the building, pointing to new theaters of similar size elsewhere in the United States that have cost around three times as much as DPAC.

Under the center's operating agreement, the city owns the building and receives 40 percent of profits. The hall is operated by Nederlander, a international booking and theater operations company. Approximately $1.50 from each ticket is set aside for a building maintenance budget. Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham, Inc., said the fact that Nederlander will guarantee any operating loss shows that professionals are confident about DPAC's success.

Half of the funding for the building came from a special 1 percent hotel occupancy tax increase, with the remainder coming from sources including Duke ($7.5 mllion) and naming rights sales.

DPAC's launch has not been without controversy. Kalkhof, one of the theater's biggest boosters, said the two projects he has backed that have been subject to the most criticism have been the DBAP and DPAC. He said there had been "an at-times raucous community discussion" about the plan, but pointed out that more than a decade after the ballpark's opening, critics are hard to find.

He predicted similar success for DPAC and said a performing arts venue has been a part of the downtown revitalization plan from its start more than 10 years ago. It will play a major role in breathing life into Durham and strengthening the arts here, he said.

"There's never one thing that leads people to invest in a downtown, but it's the combination of a lot of things," Kalkhof said. "Downtown Raleigh and downtown Durham have just grown up. This type of a facility is what a resurgent mid-sized city should have in its community."

More recently, Jim Goodmon-head of WRAL-owner Capitol Broadcasting Company-offered to donate a statue by Jaume Plensa for a plaza outside the hall.

The work by the Spanish artist-best known to Duke students for "Tattoo," an illuminated sculpture displayed on the West Campus Plaza two years ago-would cast a light beam into the air. The plan has aroused complaints from area residents about noise pollution.

Other critics have said DPAC diverts money that could be better used for other projects, including direct funding for smaller local arts groups or historic preservation efforts.

In the weeks leading to its opening, work is culminating at DPAC. During a media tour held last week, construction workers finished laying pipes and began landscaping while inside, workers installed chairs, dusted and laid down red carpet-fit for a King.


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