WTOC Investigates: New Savannah Cultural Arts Center

WTOC Investigates: New Savannah Cultural Arts Center

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Are the tax dollars you voted on to build Savannah's Cultural Arts Center being used efficiently?

It's a $24 million project that's been in the works for more than ten years and become very controversial, but why?

WTOC launched a months-long investigation after local art organizations opposed the design, and I sat down with city officials to discuss how the city selected the architect and the design.

It's a process designed to be fair. Any time the city looks to build something like a cultural arts center, it is required by state law to accept bids for every aspect of the project, starting with the design.

"So in this case, we had a large and diverse selection committee. I think there were a total of eight members on there," said Bret Bell, City of Savannah Spokesperson.

All of whom were city employees who were to rank ten architects from around the country, grading heavily on relevant experience and similar projects

A local firm won, but compared to all the others it was one of the most expensive. And based on our research, it was one of the ones with the least amount of theatre-design experience.

The city turned down an Atlanta-based firm with long a history of designing theaters around the state including Georgia State, offering to do job for $700,000 less.

Several major players in the local arts community confronted the city about the firm's experience and proposed design, a non-traditional theatre known as a flex space with retractable seats.

The Savannah Historic Foundation posted on Facebook back in September:

"It is time for city leadership to push the pause button, to ensure that what is built serves the community to its fullest potential."

But the city is moving forward; why? Was there more to it?

It was no secret that the wife of the architect was also the campaign manager to re-elect former Mayor Edna Jackson.

"If there was any collusion, it would have been the biggest collusion in Savannah's history," said Bell.

The final recommendation came down from city manager Stephanie Cutter, and I asked if she felt pressured to recommend that architect company.

"Absolutely not, I don't allow myself to be pressured that way," said Cutter.

"What do you say to tax payers who say my tax dollars aren't being put to the best use?" I asked.

"We make our best case for the taxpayers – we ask them to support funding for a specific facility and then we try to carry out the wishes of the tax payers to the best of our ability and that's what we believe we are doing here," said Bell.

The city wants a flex space to serve as a multi-purpose theatre, but experts say that's risky.

"You have to be very careful with performing art theatres because you can't be all things to all people," said Carol Thompson.

Thompson devoted her entire career to the arts, retiring last fall as the executive director for Georgia Southern's Performing Arts Center. She oversaw the building's 1996 construction, a process that was very frustrating.

"They really had approached it like a classroom, like an auditorium. Well a performing arts center is not an auditorium" said Thompson.

It took two "extra" years to complete because she was constantly arguing design flaws with a firm that had very little theater-design experience.

And we showed her the plans for the Savannah's Cultural Arts Center.

"Have you ever seen a flex space like this?" I asked.

"No I have not. For what? Make it smaller?  When you move the seats back then where is your audience, just further back from the stage? When you open up the floor, you'll have more bounce off a bare floor, it's going to change your acoustics," said Thompson.

Factors that could be a game changer to artists.

"They don't want their work, all that amount of time and energy and money they've put in to their creative process, to be in a facility that's not going to showcase them well," said Thompson.

WTOC made sure Savannah's newest mayor was aware of what we uncovered in our investigation.

"Well I mean there's a million questions surrounding all of that," said Mayor Eddie Deloach. "Is it going where it's located, is it this or that? I'm sure we'll get that all answered shortly."

Despite December's ground breaking, this project is now under new leadership, which means the new city council has full reign to change it.

"We have not approved a construction contract yet, we haven't approved spending to build this thing. Yeah, it's 100 percent in the hands of city council," said Bell.

So how do other cities do it?

WTOC's Elizabeth Rawlins took her investigation to Charleston where the city was able to double their tax dollars and make everyone happy.

The two coastal destinations favor in market size, commerce and trade, tourism, even their dedication to keeping art and culture alive.

Savannah and Charleston are both home to large non-profit music festivals and symphonies among other local art organizations, bringing tourism and commerce to their cities every year.

But here's where they're different.

Despite Savannah's historical theaters around town, the city lacks a true performance hall or cultural arts center. Charleston has The Gaillard Center, a cultural arts center built with tax dollars that opened last October.

"Clearly the goal is to serve the symphony and Spoleto as its two primary tenants and then all of the other local arts organizations," said Tom Tomlinson, CEO of the Gaillard Center.

It's everything Savannah's art organizations have begged the city for, a traditional theater with fixed seating.

There's no comparison to the size and budget of this place but the concept of both projects were based on the same basic needs and resources.

Except, Charleston came up with a private- public partnership. Fifty percent of the cost came from tax dollars and they raised the other half through private donors.

Savannah's Historic Foundation's CEO Daniel Carey said in a statement:

"Does Savannah deserve as good as or better than Charleston? Yes. And that might be accomplished through a public private partnership – just as was done in Charleston."

But Savannah did not try to double their $24 million budget by asking private donors.

"We have a tremendous amount of arts related non-profits in Savannah, all of them struggle for funding every single year. If the city embarks in a multi-year capital fundraising campaign, we would be competing directly with the private sector," said Bret Bell, City of Savannah Spokesperson.

But tax records indicate annual contributions and gifts from donors have only increased. In fact two of the largest non-profits, the Telfair Museum and Savannah Music Festival have boosted their annual private contributions by thousands since last year.

In just five years, Charleston was able to raise millions.

Even the architect for Savannah's project says the city should have tried to get private donors.

"Because we were struggling with budget all along, any infusion of capital would have been welcomed," said Pat Shay, Gunn Meyerhoff Say.

This is the same architect whose design of a non-traditional theater has been scrutinized but says he's just following orders from the city.

"At the end of the day, the architect doesn't get to decide the program for the building but we did submit viable options and the option that was selected was to make it as flexible as possible," said Shay.

Shay says the city is adamant about the flex-space design because it can be multipurpose. But Charleston says the Gaillard is exactly that.

"We do four or five Broadway type musicals a year – we have a jimmy Hendrix show coming up. So we've had almost anything you can imagine this space and we'll continue to do so. It's very much a multi-purpose building," said Tomlinson.

Charleston nearly rebuilt their outdated art facility but Savannah is building next door to a space they already recognize as useless, the Savannah Civic Center.  

"It's now one of the oldest civic centers in the country, it has served its purpose well but it's at the end of its useful life," said Bell.

An option that Shay says the city should have considered. 

"You know if the Johnny Mercer Theater were renovated, it could be that theater that everyone is looking for," said Shay.

And while many local art organizations want something like the Gaillard, Shay says this was never the city's vision to begin with.

"The performance portion of this project was always based on education and the ability for us to help our own people learn," said Shay.

So while voters may have thought they were approving funding for a cultural arts center to serve professionals and students, the city has made it clear their expectation for this theater will be nothing like Charleston.

"This is not place where you come to watch professional musicians for two weeks a year. We have lots of facilities that serve that purpose and this facility will to an extent serve that purposes but primarily this a place for our citizens to engage in the arts," said Bell.

This project is now the hands of new city leadership which means it's not too late for you to reach out to your alderman and for city leaders to make changes to the proposed project.

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