October 25, 2006

He's not just a spectator of the arts

Volunteer consultant represents city's views on theater renovation  

By Will Jones 
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

John Gerner saw singer Ani DiFranco in concert at the Carpenter Center two years ago last month.

At the time, he didn't realize the historic theater was about to close for renovations or that he would play a role in helping reopen it.

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder recently chose Gerner as a volunteer liaison consultant to his performing-arts committee. The committee will spend the next two months preparing a final report for renovating and expanding the Carpenter Center as well as, perhaps, building two smaller theaters.

"I'm an additional resource to the committee, with the perspective of bringing to the committee the city's views," said Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors.

City spokesman Linwood Norman noted Gerner's experience providing feasibility studies and analysis for leisure and cultural attractions.

"He had shown an ongoing interest in this development," Norman said of the arts center. "That and his expertise were factors in his appointment."

Gerner sees his role as seeking consistency between the committee's final report, due to Wilder on Dec. 31, and views expressed publicly by the mayor.

One of the issues concerns ownership of the Carpenter Center. The theater is currently held by the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation, but Wilder has said the city will not incur debt on buildings it does not own.

Gerner would not speculate on a change of ownership and pointed instead to Wilder's City of the Future address in January. "I think that's the starting point."

In those remarks, Wilder described how the city would own the Carpenter Center and lease it to the arts foundation for $1 per year. In return, the foundation would operate the theater and create an endowment to cover operating deficits.

The City of the Future plan would provide $25 million of the $45 million for the theater improvements with additional funds coming from the sale of tax credits and private funds already raised by the arts foundation.

In addition, the arts foundation says it has raised nearly $10.8 million of the $20 million needed to build two smaller theaters and support spaces along East Grace Street.

J. Robert Mooney, acting executive director of the foundation, welcomed Gerner's involvement but would not comment on potential city ownership of the theater.

Committee Chairman Robert J. Grey Jr. would not release details but said a proposal addressing ownership and management of the arts center has been submitted to the mayor's office and the arts foundation.

Wilder appointed the committee last year to revise the foundation's plan with an emphasis on reopening the Carpenter Center.

An interim report from the committee released last month recommends the creation of a for-profit entity to undertake renovations so historic tax credits can be used. The report does not address ownership.

Gerner said a restored theater in Roanoke provides a potential model for the Carpenter Center, which is now expected to reopen in fall 2009.

The Jefferson Center is owned by the city of Roanoke and leased to the nonprofit Jefferson Center Foundation. The foundation created two limited partnerships to use tax credits for the renovation.

Gerner had questioned whether the original plan was studied sufficiently but now believes no one person is to blame for the project's collapse last year. He sees little benefit in focusing on the past. "The poor Carpenter Center's closed. Let's move on."



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