Century II advisory committee calls for new performing arts center, public vote on funding

Wichita should build a new performing arts center in the heart of the city, not renovate Century II. And it should move quickly to find a way to pay for it.

That’s what the Century II Citizens Advisory Committee told the Wichita City Council on Tuesday.

But Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said he’s still interested in remodeling Century II, the city’s 50-year-old performing arts center. He also said he would prefer any new performance arts center be privately funded, not paid for by a tax referendum as the committee recommended. And he said a timeline provided by the committee is “not possible.”

“It’s nice to know that in all of their research they’ve been able to at least put a finger on the pulse of the community in respect to how much meaning that iconic structure (Century II) is to our community and our identity. And that fact, it’s incredibly important. Because the easy answer is, let’s just tear it down. But what they found out is that would be criminal to too many people,” Longwell said.

The committee, a 12-member group appointed by Longwell last February, made no recommendation about what to do with Century II.

“We convened not to referee a debate about whether Century II should remain part of Wichita’s skyline — and you will see that we have not made a specific recommendation on that matter for now — but rather to thoughtfully outline a path forward for performing arts facilities that can serve our community with excellence for decades to come,” said Mary Beth Jarvis, president of Wichita Festivals and a member of the committee.

The choice for whether Century II is used for something other than performing arts or torn down and used as “a signature gathering space” for the community should be made by the community, Jarvis said.

The firm selected for the new project could recommend alternative uses for Century II and/or the property on which it stands, the report says.

Existing center

Century II, a name meant to signify the start of the city’s second century, was opened in 1969. It was built with money from a narrowly passed $15 million bond issue to build a library and a cultural and civic center.

Right now, Century II has a lot of problems, Jarvis said, and it’s not serving patrons well. The problems include lack of sound isolation between spaces, inefficiencies in operations like loading, insufficient production areas, substandard equipment, inability to integrate technology into productions, makeshift shops for costume design, set building and other functions.

“It is unrealistic that the city could achieve a high-quality, cost-effective result by renovating Century II as the future home of performing arts,” the committee report says.

It would cost $252 million to renovate Century II, according to the report. The committee came up with that number from a national consultant and a local architecture firm, Jarvis said.

Longwell said any prices thrown out at this point are “just conjecture.”

“We don’t know the cost of building a renovated Century II yet,” Longwell said. “And so I think it’s unfair — at this point, it’s just conjecture to tell that this ($252 million) would be the cost of renovating Century II.”

Future funding

Jarvis said a new performing arts center and parking around it would cost more than $175 million, based on the committee’s findings. Of that, $155 million would go to the building and $20 million for parking. Site development would add a “yet-to-be-determined amount” to the center’s price tag.

“To help achieve this much needed solution for performing arts in our community, the City Council should support community efforts to explore a possible referendum for a city- or county-wide public funding initiative,” the committee recommendation says.

“This initiative could focus on performing arts needs or be scoped wider, to address additional citizen priorities,” it continues.

“Transformational projects shouldn’t happen in silos,” Jarvis said, and something this important should be decided by the community.

The committee called for the city to “support timely action, driving toward a referendum in spring of 2020.” Jarvis did not say what the referendum would be.

“It would likely be a sales tax, but we have people working on what that would look like and whether we could come up with something that’s not as regressive (as a sales tax),” Jarvis said.

To get a referendum on the ballot, it would have to be approved by a simple majority of City Council members or it could happen through a petition that includes the signatures of 25 percent of the total number of voters who voted in the last city election.

Jarvis also said the city should get started on planning. There’s a lot of community support for a “transformational project,” she said, and it’s important to capitalize on that support ahead of a referendum.

Within 60 days, the council should start a request for proposals for site selection and concept development for a new performing arts center, Jarvis said, along with a recommendation of how to select the prospective firm.

“The firm or team selected for that project should have meaningful experience with performing arts and riverfront development projects,” the recommendations say.

That firm would complete an “analysis of alternative use options for the current Century II facility and/or the property on which it stands,” the recommendation says.

“This should cover options for repurposing of the round building (including ideas gathered from citizens to date), as well as options for transforming the current site into a flexible and engaging outdoor community gathering space.”

A new facility

The new performing arts center should be “distinctive” and “customized to our community,” Jarvis said.

The new facility would be more compact than Century II. It would have the same number of seats, 2,200, but they would be raised and fit into a smaller space that would “make the performance more intimate,” Jarvis said.

Century II should remain in use until the new facility opens, Jarvis said, because Wichita’s performing arts scene can’t afford to “go dark” during renovations or by closing Century II before building a new facility.

Don Reinhold, CEO of the Wichita Symphony, said “going dark” would not be an option for his organization.

“I’ve seen it happen in other communities I’ve worked in,” Reinhold said in a news release. “An arts organization closes or gets moved to a ‘temporary,’ subpar location for one to three years, and when they come back the public has moved on.”

“We need to bridge to the future with continued use of the existing facility … until we turn over the keys of the new building,” Jarvis said.

Besides Jarvis, the Century II Citizens Advisory Committee includes other familiar names.

Aaron Bastian, president of Fidelity Bank, is on the committee. He is also a co-chair of Project Wichita, a group that listed a new performing arts facility as its first initiative as part of its “Quality of Place Action Plan.” He also is involved in The Chung Report website.

Other committee members were Tara Clary, director of marketing at High Touch Technologies; Ebony Clemons-Ajibolade, economic development at Westar Energy; Karla Fazio, attorney and arts volunteer; Tom Frye, actor and theater instructor; Brian Heinrichs, chief financial adviser at Intrust Bank; Quinn Lake, orchestra musician and music instructor; Matt Michaelis, president at Emprise Bank; Dennis Ross, physician and arts leader; Jennifer Rygg, principal at Rygg Design; and Larry Weber, vice president at Builders, Inc./Garvey Building.

Among the committee’s recommendations is that the mayor and City Council should keep the committee as a “consultative body through the completion of the project.”

Asked if the city would continue to work with the committee, Longwell said, “I believe their assignment given of what was asked of them is finished.”

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.