Deseret Morning News, Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Can shrinking audience sustain arts district?

By Amelia Nielson-Stowell
Deseret Morning News

County, city and business officials believe a cultural district in the heart of Salt Lake City will help revitalize downtown. But those in the arts community aren't altogether certain creating more facilities for a shrinking audience is the best approach.

Numerous officials from the local art community, Downtown Alliance, Salt Lake City and the private sector gathered Tuesday for a panel discussion on renovating the defunct Utah Theater and developing Main Street into a cultural hub. The panel agreed that "the time is now" to start a cultural block, since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working on redeveloping Crossroads and ZCMI.

A feasibility study on creating a district is under way and should be completed before the end of the year.

But the panel agreed Tuesday that creation of the district must center around renovating the Utah Theater.

"It's no surprise to people involved in downtown revitalization that arts and culture and entertainment do great things for cities," said Bob Farrington, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, adding that new development in downtown has already helped revitalization. "But the one that's been a little tougher and more problematic has been the block with the Utah Theater. That building has been vacant for about 12 years and, unfortunately, represents I think to the public what the condition of our downtown is."

But members of the arts community expressed fear that adding more facilities will detract from existing venues. For example, economist Jim Woods recently found that declining attendance at Abravanel Hall closely mirrored increased attendance at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. The center is booming and always booked, panelist and managing director of the Pioneer Theater Company Chris Lino said.

"Clearly, there's a need for those mid-size performing places," he said, but adding more and larger facilities is not always the most effective use of resources. "There is an existing cultural structure. Let's not rebuild new what has already been built."

The notion that Salt Lake cannot get big, national shows is not an issue of venue size, he said. The primary determiner of what kind of acts come to a community is market size.

Jerry Rapier, with alternative Plan B Theater, expressed interest in aiding current downtown art programs, rather than focusing all time, energy and money into renovating Utah Theater. Although Rose Wagner has had an increase in audience, Rapier said Plan B Theater and others are not experiencing the same influx.

"Numbers are not what they used to be. Everyone is struggling for audiences. There is more supply than ever before in this arts community and there are fewer sold-out performances. There are fewer people actually leaving their homes and partaking in the arts experience."

Another issue raised by those attending the discussion was the fact that many restaurants and businesses in downtown close around 10 p.m. and others are not open on Sunday, leaving theatergoers with few or no dining or shopping options before or after their show. Other issues discussed were creating cultural activities geared toward low-income residents and opening financing to the private sector.

Stakeholders in the project include the Downtown Alliance, Salt Lake County, RDA and Zions Bank. Funding from taxpayer dollars and from private entities have been looked at as options.

Dave Oka, executive director of the RDA, considers the "hot subject" of the district as more of a process than a project. But the completion of the RDA-commissioned study in the next month or two should move the discussion forward, he said.


© 2005 Deseret News Publishing Company