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Smaller venues have jitters about proposed RBTL theater 

A consultant studying the potential impact of a new theater on Parcel 5 was in town yesterday, giving a brief update and taking questions from City Council members. And it was clear from his discussion that many of the city’s arts organizations are still very concerned about the proposed new venue for the Rochester Broadway Theater League: its financial viability and its effect on them.

click to enlarge RBTL-Morgan development proposed for Parcel 5. - FILE RENDERING
  • RBTL-Morgan development proposed for Parcel 5.
In response to arts leaders' concerns, earlier this year the city hired Connecticut-based AMS Planning and Research to study the issue. Part of its charge was to analyze the impact of new performing arts centers in comparable-sized cities.

It was also asked to talk with leaders of the Rochester arts community, and at a meeting of City Council's Arts and Culture Committee yesterday, Ray Cullom, an AMS sub-contractor, talked about what he had learned so far.

AMS consultants have talked with officials at Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Rochester City Ballet, Blackfriars Theatre, Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, GEVA, and the Strong National Museum of Play, among others, Cullom said. Virtually all of them said there is a need for smaller venues downtown. Space for smaller venues is not included in the RBTL proposal, however.

Finding new sources of financial support in a competitive market are huge concerns for them, Cullom told Council members. The new theater will be expensive, and the arts leaders are concerned about where that money will come from, he said. They're also concerned about losing patrons and donations to support the RBTL venue once it’s built, he said.

Cullom said it’s not unusual for cities like Rochester to see a “bump” in development and improvements in arts and cultural centers after a large venue is built. A new theater can attract business from around the area and doesn’t have to drain smaller venues, he said. There’s an opportunity to increase attendance and grow the audience for arts and culture, he said.

While it’s been called a downtown performing arts center for months, the new RBTL venue would actually be a new auditorium, not an arts center, Cullom said. And while there has also been some talk of having an IMAX movie theater incorporated in the building to provide extra financial support for the project, movie theaters will not work in the space, Cullom said. Movie theaters need completely different building and sound technology requirements than auditoriums built for Broadway shows, he said.

Some of the officials at the city’s smaller venues complained that the planning process to build the performing arts center on Parcel 5 has been “opaque,” Cullom said. But Mayor Lovely Warren's chief of staff Alex Yudelson, who was also at the meeting, said the project is still in the initial planning phase and at least of some of the ideas – such a movie theater or a rooftop green space – are just ideas. Fundraisers like Sandy Parker, the former CEO of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, need a concept to work with, Yudelson said. Parker is the theater’s chief fundraiser.

“Not a lot has been solidified,” Yudelson said. “It’s hard to raise money on a hypothetical.”

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