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Are we ready for this?

Bob Anderson wants more than just a performing arts center. The program director for the Fargo-Moorhead Jazz Arts Group says the cities need a building with everything from a 2,000-seat performing hall to office space for arts groups that now ope...

Bob Anderson wants more than just a performing arts center.

The program director for the Fargo-Moorhead Jazz Arts Group says the cities need a building with everything from a 2,000-seat performing hall to office space for arts groups that now operate off someone's kitchen table.

Fargo City Commissioner Linda Coates says now is the time to mull such ideas.

"Every so often, a time comes along when things are happening so quickly you need to stop and get your arms around it," she says. "We seem to be at one of those points."

Some opponents of a downtown Fargo events center, which garnered 29 percent support in a May 3 vote, said they wanted a performing arts center.


In an April opinion poll commissioned by The Forum, 33 percent of respondents said they preferred a downtown performing arts center over what was proposed.

Anderson takes the performing arts center idea several steps further. He envisions a mall that would be to the arts what West Acres mall is to retailers.

It could include a 2,000-seat, state-of-the-art theater that could be reconfigured for a number of uses: classroom and recital halls; office space for arts organizations that can afford their own offices; and for those smaller ones that can't, an "arts incubator" that would function like Fargo's business incubator, providing telephones, office equipment and work space for smaller organizations, Anderson says.

A larger arts mall could spread the ongoing maintenance costs among more entities and lower rents, he says.

A decision on a performing arts center ultimately will come down to whether Fargo-Moorhead has the political will to undertake the long process of designing and building one. The first part of that will be to determine whether anybody would even use it - and if so, who the users would be.

"I hope to help convene that discussion" soon, Coates says.

Coates, past executive director of both the Lake Agassiz Arts Council and the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, was a strong voice for a performing arts center in the debate before the May 3 vote.

"There's been a very deep and long-standing desire for a performing arts center by a lot of people," Coates says,


The only way to get one built is to "put some real effort and energy into exploring exactly what it is that we need, what we can use, what we can pay for," she says.

She says the community needs to do an in-depth study of both the need for a new performance facility and the state of existing ones. The Lake Agassiz Arts Council will be seeking funding for that, she says.

Fargo Theatre Executive Director Margie Bailly says such a study has already been done, but the results need updating.

The Fargo-Moorhead Area Foundation funded a 1989 study by the Laventhol and Horwath accounting firm of a performing arts center tied to the Fargo Civic Center.

But the city and downtown have changed greatly since then, Bailly says. For example, the Fargodome didn't open until 1992.

Coates says a performing arts center could include a 2,000-seat hall for both public and school arts organizations - musical groups, dance and theater troupes - and touring artists. During the day, it could be used as a teaching facility for groups like Trollwood Performing Arts School and even private music teachers who currently see students in their own homes.

The city would have an important role in supporting such a project - a role it has so far seemed unwilling to take, Coates says.

Bailly says a performing arts center will need a financial commitment from local government, since virtually all such facilities operate in the red.


"We have to understand, as a city, that if this is something we want, this is something the city has to commit to," Bailly says. "The city, at this point in time, has not committed to really significant funding for the arts. Number one, you've got to build it. Number two, you have to commit to sustaining it forever and ever. That is the bottom line. That is the reality. I'm not sure we're ready for that reality."

A check with leaders in Fargo-Moorhead's arts community shows the idea of a performing arts center still draws interest, but mostly in an abstract way.

Fargo-Moorhead Opera officials say they likely will use one if built.

The opera currently mounts its two yearly productions in Reineke Fine Arts Center's Festival Concert Hall at North Dakota State University. Opera officials say they've been happy working with NDSU, but Reineke is inadequate for the company's needs.

Opera Artistic Director David Hamilton says the Reineke stage has no fly system, the rigging that allows for raising and lowering of scenery. The pit has no hydraulics - it's either left open or covered during productions - and is too small to accommodate a full opera orchestra. The acoustics in Reineke, not built for opera, are poor, he says.

Opera Executive Director Becky Sundet-Schoenwald says dressing rooms are not backstage, but on a separate floor and "artists are running up and down stairs in long gowns - not always easy."

Because liquor cannot be served on the NDSU campus, the opera cannot serve wine or champagne at fundraisers and during intermissions.

"We really feel we could benefit from doing that kind of thing," she says. "Just a more cosmopolitan kind of atmosphere. Heck, we can't even get coffee service there."


It's uncertain whether the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony would move into a performing arts center, says orchestra Executive Director Bill Law. Law is leaving his post with the symphony to take a job with NDSU's Fine Arts Department, which oversees Reineke, where the symphony plays.

"The magic question of (the symphony) is: What don't we have right now that we would need?" Law says.

Currently, the symphony does each of its major concerts twice in the 997-seat hall. Some shows sell out, but not all. And doing each program twice gives audience members a choice of when they want to see it, he says.

"I don't know, at this point, if we would fill a 2,000-seat auditorium," he says. "Would a half-filled auditorium be better than a full house?"

Acoustically, Festival Hall doesn't have quite enough reverberation to provide a full orchestra sound. Law says that problem has partially been solved electronically, with sound pumped back onto both the stage and into the house itself.

In addition, NDSU has been good at working with the symphony, Law says, adding dryly, "of course, I would say that right now."

The symphony often gets priority for booking the hall and the $12,000 annual rent is relatively small compared to what other orchestras its size pay, Law says.

"From the symphony's standpoint, (a performing arts center) is not a must-have," Law says.


Because it has its own building, the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theater wouldn't be a major tenant of a performing arts center either, but still may use it occasionally, says Artistic Director Charlene Hudgins.

In her six seasons here, FMCT has used a different venue for two shows, "Annie" and "The Sound of Music." Both of those were staged at the Fargo Theatre.

"We knew they would draw a larger audience than our theater would seat," Hudgins says. FMCT's Emma K. Herbst Playhouse can seat 352, while the Fargo Theatre has room for nearly 900. The entire run of both shows sold out.

Whether the community theater would use a performing arts center depends on what the rent would be, she says. That, in turn, would be determined by how well the builders of a center would plan for future needs.

The most expensive part of building a performing arts center wouldn't necessarily be bricks and mortar, Hudgins says. The most expensive thing would be future maintenance, for which money would have to be set aside early.

"I think that has to be a huge part of the planning," she says.

Building a performing arts center also would mean balancing its operation against its effect on other, nearby venues, Coates says.

"What good is a performing arts center if it's going to be a Death Star?" Coates says.


Hudgins says she's also concerned that construction of a performing arts center would draw grant money away from smaller arts organizations, for which such grants are a major part of the budget.

For now, nobody seems concerned that a performing arts center would necessarily add to competition among arts groups for the public's entertainment dollar.

"We're going into our 59th season this coming year," Hudgins says. "We've got a well-established audience base. This has been our best year ever and there've been more start-up theaters in town than there's ever been."

Bailly says that even though the Fargo Theatre hosts some of the smaller concerts and traveling plays that would presumably go into a performing arts center, its niche in presenting independent and foreign films would keep it from competing much with a new facility. And whatever competition there would be is good for the arts here, she says.

Rob Sobolik, general manager of the Fargodome, says if a performing arts center and the dome were managed by the same people, it would alleviate concerns about those two buildings competing.

"If any new facility is put in, it would only make sense for them to be managed under the same umbrella, not only cost efficiency, but booking-wise, equipment sharing," Sobolik says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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