I recently had one of those old-fashioned, in-person-type conversations with Kristen. We discussed the [Greensboro] performing arts center plans, and how she believes supporters should bill the project as the Greensboro Civic Auditorium rather than Performing Arts Center. She’s right about this. Performing Arts Center means very little to most people and at worst gives off a snobbish tone. It gives off an old-fashioned aura, of a place of bad middle school field trips. Civic Auditorium, on the other hand, gives off the air of the Forum, the great public gathering place. One of our neighbors to the north, Roanoke, VA, pulled this off with the Roanoke Civic Center. With this in mind, we should examine the downtown events that will benefit from having a great downtown civic auditorium.
First, we have very well attended, arts-and-culture-focused festivals. Over 90,000 people come downtown for Fun Fourth, our Independence Day festival. The Fun Fourth events fill downtown with people and activity. Adding to that with talks, music, and movies in our Civic Auditorium, and with concurrent events in pre-existing downtown spaces will help us keep up the momentum of an already successful event. Next, our United Arts Council is the second year of its new 17 Days festival. In its first year, the festival drew big name acts like the Avett Brothers and filled the city with visitors. Additionally, our First Fridays and the[December] Festival of Lights keep getting bigger and bigger. We can use another great downtown venue to grow these events.
This model of growth, building on arts, tourism, and fun, worked for our neighbor Charleston. Charleston, which has lots of visitors and event spaces, is conducting a $142 million renovation of the Gaillard Auditorium, one of the main spaces of its world-famous Spoleto Festival. Charleston wants to keep up with modern sound systems and theater technology. Many other events can use the space, and new ones can always spring up. Charleston has created many new festivals and gatherings in the last 40 years: Spoleto, Charleston Food and Wine Festival, the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, the Family Circle Tennis Tournament, and others. These keep the city full of tourists and businesspeople who come, spend money, and leave. Greensboro should draw some lessons from our neighbor to the south.
A few months back, Kristen wrote a piece about the civic inferiority complex. That no matter what, we need another status symbol company – an Apple Store, a Nordstrom’s, a Trader Joe’s, or a Whole Foods – to make us a “real town.”
The performing arts center debate shows the same sort of complex, as though we are not classy enough for an arts venue. We hear “Greensboro is not an arts town, it’s a family town” (as though you cannot be both) or “we are more of a sports town” or “we’re not the kind of people who would use that.” Those who believe this about our town misjudge our citizens – Greensboro has filled venues for arts events over and over again.
Instead of waiting on others (like Nordstrom’s or Apple) to come build these things, we should demonstrate our status through our own achievements as a city. Strive forward with an aspirational building, with the knowledge that Greensboro can grow into its new clothes. New South Wales did not wait for a company to build the Sydney Opera House, the province did it itself. I am sure some people at the time said that Sydney was not ready for such a venue, that Sydney was not an Opera Kind of Town. UNESCO named the building a World Heritage Site in 2007. That, my friends, shows the power of vision and ambition. Charleston was once not the Charleston that we know today. Civic leaders, including Mayor Joseph P. Riley, in his 40th year of service as mayor, pushed for development and arts to create today’s Charleston.
In addition to building the new, we should take care of the old. In Providence, Rhode Island, Mayor Angel Taveras campaigned in 2010 on a fix-up-the city platform. True to his word, this year he put a $40 million bond issue on the ballot for Providence road repair. Given the terrible shape of Providence’s streets, the fact that Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and the huge popularity of Mayor Taveras, the voters gave the Mayor’s bond 90% of the vote. Greensboro should look at this as a model. Having a great city means not only building new venues and amenities, but caring for the ones we have as well.
Previous councils chopping maintenance budgets and the failure of some bond referenda in the past (including ones to fix up War Memorial Auditorium) have left the Gate City with a backlog of deferred maintenance. The Cultural Arts Center, the Grimsley High School pool, many of our community centers, War Memorial Stadium, and even the Melvin [Municipal] Office Building could use some work. Perhaps a major maintenance bond could get through the city council or a bond referendum.
Mayor Taveras showed every neighborhood in Providence how the bond would improve their streets, campaigning throughout the town with a map of every single street in Providence with streets selected for maintenance highlighted, should the bond pass. This worked, and 90% of voters pulled the lever for Taveras’ initiative. Greensboro could use a Taveras-style push for repairs, as an economic development initiative and because we should care and maintain our shared property.
However, this should not be an either-or choice, as in either the PAC or maintain everything else. We need to bring the whole city into the 21st century. Perhaps while we are at it we can get Duke Energy to bury some more power lines, rather than hacking at our trees.
We need a ten-year plan that includes building the PAC and providing upkeep to all municipal buildings in need. This could come from one bond, or a series of them. It could all come from the budget in other ways, though I doubt that would happen. All the amenities, public spaces, and people make Greensboro what it is, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. We should not let the spaces we have languish, nor should we ever stop improving or innovating.
Images above all belong to me, clockwise from top: DC Metro in Alexandria, VA, July 2012; Performing Arts Center Charrette in Greensboro,NC, October 2012;Brunch at Yolk in Chicago, November 2012; Airpoet Sign at Busboys and Poets, Arlington,VA, December 2012 and Carolina Theater, Greensboro, NC, July, 2012.