ARTS

Jefferson Performing Arts Center Faces Viability Issues Affecting Cultural Buildings Nationwide

08/22/2012 12:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 22, 2012

Dennis Assaf has been waiting a long time to see a new performing arts center built in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. When he co-founded the Jefferson Performing Arts Society in 1978, he said he'd make it his "mission" to give the society a permanent home, but since then the center has become a symbol of the state's money woes, attaching itself to corruption, delays, and misappropriated funds.

"Every step of the way we have led this charge for a new [arts center]," Assaf, 61, told The Huffington Post. "We have been fighting for almost 35 years. I have dedicated my youth, sometimes my health to getting this thing built."

Now Assaf, who is artistic director and conductor for the JPAS, which produces around 150 dance, theatre, and orchestral performances across the metropolitan New Orleans area each year, will have to wait at least a few more. 

Plans for a state-of-the-art center with a price tag of almost $30 million were initially set in motion in 1997. Since then, the center's construction has encountered an extremely lengthy list of bureaucratic hurdles, according to Citizens for a Good Government, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, both of which have extensively covered the building plans.

But finally, it seems, everyone wants to finish the center and get it over with. On Aug. 16, the parish "reauthorized" another $9.9 million for the performing arts center. Since the plan's inception, the price tag has increased from $28 million to $44 million. The director of the Louisiana State Bond Commission recently told the Times-Picayune that it could go up again, to $52 million.

State Rep. Cameron Henry, who represents the Jefferson area, said the project is already 60 percent over budget.

"How much more money are we going to put into it?" he asked.

Jefferson Parish President John Young told The Huffington Post that after almost 15 years of turmoil, and after Jefferson Parish saw its previous president, Aaron Broussard and attorney, Tom Wilkinson, indicted for public corruption, he is looking to get the arts center done as soon as possible.

"I want to finish it," Young said. "Not finishing is not a viable option."

Young had previously called the project "an ugly baby," but sees it as one he has to take on with his new administration.

Right now, Young said, an exact completion date is not in sight. He plans to "sit down" with contractor J. Caldarera & Co., which was initially paid $26.5 million for the project, and "light a fuse under them." Though "a lot" of the center has already been built, Young said, it's still missing some key components, like a concession stand.

"The ideal end date would have been yesterday," Young told HuffPost. "We're seeking an additional $2.4 million for this year, and another $3.4 million for next year. That will be the last funding we get from the state."

A representative for J. Caldarera & Co. did not return a request for comment. Assaf is hoping negotiations go well, both for the sake of his performing arts organization -- which is also struggling to retain funds -- and for the parish itself.

"You cant just walk away from a $40 million project, you can't just sell it or turn it into a museum or a bomb shelter. You can't," he said. "I've given my life to this thing."

As Assaf and Young struggle to keep this performing arts center afloat, many others across the country are facing similar issues with their own large-scale projects.

The Carmel Performing Arts Center in Carmel, Indiana, was originally budgeted at $30 million, but eventually ballooned to more than $150 million, with the public footing a good chunk of the bill. The CEO of the center, Steven Libman, abruptly resigned in July 2011, and in June of this year Carmel Mayor James Brainard, requested another $840,000 to cover its bills, reporting a "huge deficit" in the center's budget.

After construction delays, the director and staff of the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando are also struggling to raise funds. They must come up with $75 million in order to continue construction on the massive new center, which has already completed its $283 million initial phase of construction, according to the Orlando Business Journal. The city of Orlando said it would donate $100 million to the project only if that $75 million is raised in the next 18 months. To put the figure in perspective, in the 12 months after the first phase of construction, the center raised only $2.7 million.

Barbara Jepson, classical music writer for the Wall Street Journal, questioned whether such large, ornate structures for more classical arts events are even viable anymore.

"Are we seeing the last gasp of major performing-arts-center construction for a while?" asked Jepson, who also cited National Endowment for the Arts studies on declining classical music and opera audiences across the country.

She suggested that only "time will tell" whether more of these grand structures will be built.

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