November 9, 2013

Arts leaders: More study needed on Century II as performing arts center

A study about Wichita’s convention future recommends tearing down Century II or turning it over to the arts groups that use part of it now.

A study about Wichita’s convention future recommends tearing down Century II or turning it over to the arts groups that use part of it now.

But the city’s performing arts leaders say they aren’t sure they want – or can use – all of the 44-year-old building.

The city’s look at Century II’s future is proceeding too fast and needs to include a closer study of the future of arts in Wichita, they say.

“I suppose that if you talk to some, it’s time to fire up the bulldozers and start building. But I think this is a real opportunity to determine how great Wichita can become,” said Don Reinhold, executive director of the Wichita Symphony. “It’s like the Fidelity Bank ad: If we can make awesome happen, let’s do that.

“But what does awesome look like? It can take awhile to figure that out, but other cities have done it and we can, too.”

Reinhold, Wayne Bryan of Music Theatre of Wichita and Parvan Bakardiev of Wichita Grand Opera say they want the city to take a careful, systematic look at the growth potential of performing arts in Wichita before they find themselves with more space than they can use as the sole tenants of Century II.

They have a willing set of ears in Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner.

“With the quality of what they do, the money they bring to Wichita, they’re a significant economic impact tool for Wichita,” he said. “Look at the response to ‘The Lion King.’ Sellouts, with 50 percent of the sales coming from outside Sedgwick County. That’s exactly what we want coming out of a performing arts building.”

Susie Santo, president of Go Wichita, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, said in an e-mail that efforts are being made to include the arts community.

“We greatly value the opinion of our arts partners and have met with them and will continue to do so to ensure their perspectives are thoroughly evaluated as we go through the process,” she wrote. “The performing arts are extremely valuable to our community and their input is vitally important.”

The dated ‘blue dome’

Conventions Sports and Leisure, the national consultants that conducted a study of the convention market for Go Wichita, suggested that Century II’s usefulness housing conventions and consumer shows has passed.

The consultants said Wichita could more than double its convention business to almost $50 million in revenue annually with a state-of-the-art convention center and 100 more hotel rooms.

The study offers two options: Tear down the entire Century II complex and build a new, larger convention center on site, with a new arts center on site or elsewhere. Or build a new convention center on part of the site and remodel Century II for the arts.

The study cites “challenges with the size, quality and configuration of existing convention space” in Century II, specifically the difficulty in subdividing the round building’s pie-shaped spaces for convention exhibitors.

Plus, “the CII signature ‘blue dome’ – while a recognized, iconic landmark unique to Wichita – gives the impression of a dated, substandard convention product to certain participants in the national convention marketplace, working to reduce, rather than enhance the competitiveness of the current Wichita convention product within the broader national convention market,” the report reads.

The building’s manager, John D’Angelo, acknowledges the report’s conclusions: “Its purpose for conventions and consumer shows makes it a difficult space to work,” he said. “Floor layout, height of ceilings, electrical layout, aesthetic issues. It’s showing itself as a 1970s building. The terrazzo is cracked. The walls have been patched so much that the patches look like, well, patches.”

The convention market study began in March and was completed last month.

Next up in the convention planning process is the hiring of architects to produce schematic options for a new convention facility. Officials will then launch a cost/benefit analysis to determine costs for the various options, with a report scheduled tentatively for late winter.

Build a ‘showplace’?

Bryan, who heads Music Theatre, doesn’t contest the report’s conclusion about Century II; he just wants the same type of a detailed study about the future of performing arts in Wichita.

“It has not yet been truly contemplated what the potential for the arts is in Wichita, what growth could be, what different organizations might use an expanded facility – be it a reconfigured Century II or a new facility all together,” Bryan said.

“That is a real concern to the arts leaders I know, because it seems like action is being contemplated based on very incomplete information.”

Santo said future studies will examine the role of the arts at Century II.

“That is why a phased (study) approach continues to be so important. Phase 2 will help define what our options are and begin to define those costs as well. Phase 3 is the cost/benefit analysis. These steps will help us explore the options and decide what is best for Wichita,” she said.

Bryan said he’s confident the city’s arts supporters would be willing to partner with the city on a new performing arts center – if the issue is thoroughly vetted.

But none of the arts leaders said they are willing to fully endorse taking over a repackaged Century II. Some worry that they may not be able to run a profitable operation with 70,000 square feet vacated by the convention and show business.

“The reality is you have this pie, and a quarter of it works pretty well,” Reinhold said. “I’m not going to give it an A, but a B or a B-plus. The acoustics are quite good, the amenities are not bad. The backstage area is problematic, and I think everyone would tell you that. If you reconfigure, then there’s got to be some way to use that other space.

“But basically, when a quarter of a building works and the rest doesn’t, what do you do?”

You build a showplace on the river downtown, said Bakardiev, the opera president.

“It is a very exciting option,” he said. “You can perform indoor and outdoor, become the calling card for the aviation capital of the world and become the arts capital of the Midwest.

“I’m not the construction guy. I’m not the expert. But there’s no ambiance in this hall right now, and we have to be bold to keep up with the Joneses.”

Arts ‘doing well in Wichita’

Meitzner is on board with the idea of a new performing arts center.

“You can argue they should have a performing arts building themselves, and it probably could be a partnership with the support they have,” he said.

But keeping up requires planning that hasn’t happened, Bryan said.

“The plans that have been put forward are all based on a future for conventions that is conjecture, but the future of the arts is based on accommodating what has already taken place here,” he said. “Do we need a black box theater? Should there be an additional training center? Would the universities use an additional performing center?

“The arts are doing well in Wichita. We’re thriving. We create $66 million a year in business and we create jobs. It’s conventions that are woefully underperforming. I am behind Go Wichita and the city doing what they need to to increase business. But I can’t imagine so much action being contemplated before we ask what the performing arts needs.”

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