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Answers elude on Greensboro's Tanger performing arts center
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Answers elude on Greensboro's Tanger performing arts center

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GREENSBORO — Last summer, the people planning the $78.1 million Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts had a problem:

LeBauer Park, the new outdoor space between Church and Davie streets.

The park oozed energy even before it opened Aug. 8 — with its promise of beer and wine sales, a splash park, a wide-open lawn, a glowing aerial sculpture.

All of that was only drawing attention to the empty lot 100 yards away, where city officials and private benefactors had pledged to build the center with nearly $40 million in public money and $38 million in donations.

There was nothing happening on those 5½ acres between Summit Avenue and North Elm Street. No construction, no sign touting an upcoming groundbreaking — nothing but weeds growing around the fence, a situation the city was scrambling to remedy before the park’s opening.

Kathy Manning, chief fundraiser for the arts center, broached the subject in an email July 30.

“With the opening of LeBauer Park, I am expecting some questions on Tanger process,” Manning told Coliseum Director Matt Brown and Walker Sanders, director of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, rounding out the trio of people responsible for making the Tanger Center a reality.

“I think we need to prepare an update to send to donors. What info can we share?”

Just hours later, Manning sent another, much grimmer email to Brown and Sanders.

“As I suspected, I just got a text from Steve Tanger,” wrote Manning, referring to the donor whose $7.5 million pledge ensured the building would be named after him.

“He is very upset and wants to know when the groundbreaking will be. What can I tell him?”

For the next 48 hours, Manning traded emails with Brown and Sanders, who defended the slow, methodical process of designing the 3,000-seat auditorium.

Manning, however, said the project had reached “a crisis point.”

“I don’t know how else to ring the alarms but we have to find a way to move this project forward faster or we will lose big donors,” she wrote.

The next day, in an email with the subject line “Steve Tanger,” Manning wrote: “He is still not happy. He wants to know why we are 60-90 days behind. Wants a timeline. Can you get me something tomorrow?”

Sanders replied that Tanger “needs to be reminded of how we got here,” then laid out a project timeline that began with a 2012 task force.

“I don’t feel we are 60-90 days behind,” Sanders told Manning and Brown. “It is simply taking more time than we want due to the complexity of what we are doing.”

Manning’s response was swift and sharp:

“To say we are still on target to open in the fall of 2018 is just the problem. That is not ‘on target’ — that is one year behind target,” she wrote, noting the previously announced opening date of 2017.

“I don’t want to have to wash my hands of this project but if we keep pretending that things aren’t running late that is just dishonest and I won’t put my reputation on the line by trying to whitewash things.

“At the very least let’s be honest about where we stand. We are one year behind because we have been trying to build a $75 million building for $50 million — the donors were unwilling to compromise on quality and the city was unwilling to compromise on size.”

Therein lies the problem with the Tanger Center. Five years after its genesis, the center is mired in delays that, in the words of Manning last August, has some people “questioning if the project is really going to happen” and some donors “threatening to stop paying their pledges.”

Consider:

Manning and Sanders last week backed off their recent statements that the center would open in the first quarter of 2019. Both cited issues related to permitting and referred questions to Brown, who was out of town.

City staffers were rushing to approve permits for construction as recently as Thursday, more than nine months after the permitting process started.

What’s more, roughly 3½ years after the city bought the land, project organizers are now having to reconfigure the property lines, a process that as of March 3 still needed fresh deeds and bank approval.

Even the Tanger Center’s own website, tangerperformingarts.com, is behind.

A link called “Next Steps, Toward a Spring 2018 Opening” explains that City Council must vote on the “guaranteed maximum price,” the most the contractor can charge.

“This is expected to occur around mid-October 2015,” the website said Saturday.

That vote hasn’t happened and could be weeks, if not months away. It’s a crucial step in the process, holding up the groundbreaking ceremony that Manning said Tanger and other major donors so eagerly anticipate.

And a small circle of people familiar with the project can provide an answer about those details and others critical to the project’s survival:

Has the $78.1 million price tag risen?

If so, who will pay for it? Donors? Taxpayers?

Meanwhile, the land sits fallow while the public is left with one big question:

What’s taking so long?

Delays and excuses

There probably isn’t just one answer.

Emphasis on the word “probably.” Truth is, we don’t know, despite multiple attempts to get answers in the past few months.

In November, the News & Record requested public information from July and August — emails, drawings, project schedules and other documents Brown had sent or received that would shed light on the project’s timeline and cost.

Meanwhile, Manning, Brown and Sanders provided an update to a group of News & Record reporters and editors in mid-December.

The trio announced a new projected opening date: the first quarter of 2019.

They said all donors were fulfilling their pledges and that the center’s price tag was holding at $78.1 million — though Brown said that figure likely will rise to $80 million to cover pre-opening costs.

They chalked up delays to the project’s size, scope and level of excellence.

“This is an unbelievably complicated building,” Manning said during that interview.

“To get the sound right, to get the lighting right, to get the air conditioning and heating right, it’s all interconnected.”

The emails, which the News & Record began to receive from the city on Feb. 25, told a more complex story of frustrated donors, endless decisions made by committee and a project mired in delays.

Given our new insight, we asked Manning, Brown and Sanders on Feb. 28 to schedule a time to meet that week with the same group of News & Record journalists they faced in December.

Sanders agreed to do so — and Brown’s spokesman requested more information about the meeting — but no one ever got back to us with a possible date.

On March 7, the paper learned that the trio had scheduled a meeting for March 15 but had neglected to tell anyone at the newspaper.

By then, however, editors had planned to publish this article and one that appeared Wednesday.

In brief telephone interviews for that article, Sanders and Manning again said all pledges have come in on time, though Sanders did say delays have jeopardized donations.

“We’ve had donors in the last three months say, ‘If there is no progress made, it will make us consider delaying our pledge promises,’ ” he said.

He added that the Community Foundation is “100 percent behind” the $38.5 million the donors have promised, meaning that the foundation would cover any gaps between what has been promised for the project and what actually would be collected.

Manning also denied that the project was at a “crisis point,” the phrase she used in her August email. Manning said that was a negotiating tactic to push the city to work faster.

On March 3, the News & Record requested a one-page document, the “design completion schedule.” The spreadsheet spells out each step of the design and construction process and lists how long each step should take.

This document would provide insight into when organizers might schedule a groundbreaking ceremony.

On Friday, the city’s public records administrator said Brown remained out of town and unavailable to provide this document.

The News & Record still plans to meet with Manning, Brown and Sanders on Wednesday.

Public-private conundrum

Some background:

In 2012, arts patrons and Greensboro politicians started making plans for the Tanger Center, which would host touring Broadway shows, concerts, Bryan Series speakers and performances by the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra.

The project is what’s known as a “public-private partnership.” The city, the “public” part of the equation, will spend $39.6 million — $10 million from a tax on hotel rooms and $29.6 million from ticket fees and parking revenue.

The “private” end of the partnership, managed by Sanders and Manning, is what sets the process apart. The two have raised more than $38.5 million from private donors, including $7.5 million from Tanger, the outlet center magnate.

The “public-private” process affords the public significantly less oversight than projects built entirely with public money — such as the Greensboro Aquatic Center or UNC-Greensboro’s Kaplan Center for Wellness.

The donors can veto any designs or features that Brown and the design team approves.

The City Council will approve the annual budget and pay to run the center, as it does with the Greensboro Coliseum.

But to lock in the private donations, the City Council in 2014 gave partial control of the center to the Greensboro Performing Arts Foundation, a nonprofit organization run by donors. A 13-member committee made up mostly of high-dollar donors approved the design, a process that wasn’t open to the public.

The center will be part of the coliseum complex and managed by Brown, who many consider to be one of the best coliseum directors in the country.

Brown’s complex is overseen by two public bodies — the War Memorial Commission and the City Council, which has the final say on what projects Brown builds and how he spends city money.

The complex is subject to the state’s open-meetings and public records laws, which make Brown’s emails and any other Tanger Center-related documents in his possession part of the public record.

The private donors are under no such obligations.

When pressed on details about the project during a phone interview Wednesday, Manning said she was “not going to discuss in the paper” any negotiations about the project.

She also said she was “not in the habit of having my emails revealed in public.”

Unprecedented control

Because of the donors’ unprecedented control over the design, they also control the speed at which that process evolves — at least indirectly.

Manning and Sanders, who represent donors at committee meetings, give voice to the donors’ concerns — such as the one Manning raised on behalf of Tanger.

Tanger didn’t return a call to his Greensboro office last Tuesday. A New York-based spokeswoman for Tanger called Wednesday to ask for more details about the nature of the News & Record’s questions and said Tanger was traveling last week.

In some instances, emails received by the News & Record show, Manning and Sanders’ input can slow the process and, in the case of Manning, cause Brown and other project team members to work around her.

An example:

On July 5, architect Amanda Hodgins of the Atlanta-based firm Rosser sent an email to Brown and four other team members about the possibility of losing seats in the auditorium to the placement of a staircase.

“Matt asked that we not bring up these potential changes to the auditorium and seating in front of Kathy Manning,” she wrote.

“It is unclear exactly what time she will arrive for our meetings in Greensboro tomorrow, but as we talk about these issues/this sketch, we must be mindful of not alarming Kathy.”

Another example, also from last summer, involves the placement of the “mix station,” a platform of sound equipment and volume controls that often take up chunks of seats during concerts and other events.

Brown, along with architects and sound engineers, agreed to place that platform in the back of the auditorium, taking up about two dozen seats.

When the traveling Broadway production of “The Lion King” came to Greensboro, its staffers reviewed the drawing to give input and objected to the placement in the seats.

Manning, on June 28, wrote in an email to Brown and Sanders.: “You know I’ve been unhappy about that placement for Broadway shows from day 1 and the concerns expressed by the Lion King staff reinforces my concern.

“While you may need the mix station there for rock and other concerts, it seems the wrong place for Broadway.”

She suggested discussing the default location for the mix station with the option to move it for rock concerts.

Brown immediately consulted with experts from another performing arts center, and asked for their help convincing Manning to accept the recommendation of Arup, a global design and engineering consulting firm working on the project.

“We will need to be clear and in agreement on this in discussing this with KM,” Brown wrote.

In a separate email to Arup on June 29, Brown wrote: “All of this discussion/recommended changes, if any needs to be flushed out amongst us before any open discussion with Kathy Manning on 7/6.”

And in yet another thread to Manning and Sanders, Brown said he wanted Manning to know “that we are responsive to any concerns you have re STPAC design and as you can see our team has spent a great deal of time re-reviewing this issue intensively.”

Sanders responded that he understood the technical reasons for putting the sound equipment in the seats, but “it comes up in every presentation we give.

“People ask, why are those ‘premium’ seats lost for a mixing station?”

Sanders suggested marking those seats with a dotted line on any drawings. That way, he said, he could tell donors “this is where the sound mix station could be depending on the particular show but we have the flexibility to adapt to assure that patrons always have access to the best seats first (which) helps us in fundraising.”

Brown spent June 30 emailing architects and others on the project, who warned of complications if the mix station was moved.

Brown forwarded the thread to Manning and Sanders, saying it is “another good example of how just one small minor change in the design plans like simply adding 12 in fill seats ... can lead to the complications outlined below and the domino effect any change can have on our life safety plans and finalizing are (sic) other design details.

“This is an example of why the process takes longer than we would like it to move.”

Manning responded on July 5: “I am baffled by this one. We agreed months ago that the compromise on the placement of the mix position was that it would be built so that seats could be put there for shows that wanted seats there. That was the deal we reached.”

She said “we are not building a road house and we are not building a small coliseum. We are building a first class performing arts center and having patrons at a Broadway show surrounding the mix positions is at best a bad compromise.”

Brown emailed Manning and Sanders later that night: “We r committed to using the mixing platform with seating any time it is not used for any performance production.”

City Councilman Mike Barber, who voted in favor of putting $39.6 million of public money into the project, said it has been a difficult task for Brown “to accommodate multiple benefactors.

“The best thing for the benefactors is to let Matt and his very talented staff go forward with this project,” he said.

“Being a wealthy benefactor doesn’t make you an expert on all topics, and we need to leave the construction to the experts.”

May/June groundbreaking?

Other questions that remain unanswered concern the project’s permitting, which Manning and Sanders said last week was responsible for some of the delays.

On Thursday, the city “released” the Tanger Center for permits, a huge hurdle that presumably clears the way for the next step: negotiating the center’s “guaranteed maximum price.”

A design schedule created last August says that step should take 42 business days.

If the negotiation started Monday , it wouldn’t end until mid- to late May. Then the council must vote yea or nay on the maximum price, which could push the groundbreaking into June.

And that’s just the earliest it could happen. Other things could lengthen the time, including a review by the N.C. Department of Insurance. It’s unclear where that process stands.

It’s also unclear what delayed the permitting process to begin with. That was languishing as recently as March 1, just days after the News & Record started asking questions about the project’s timeline to completion.

Here’s the timeline:

Tanger Center officials applied for a permit on May 24, 2016, according to the city’s online plan review portal.

City inspectors then denied permits for 10 of 13 categories — building inspection, design review, fire prevention and others — through June 7.

Inspectors didn’t review any permits after that for more than seven months, the portal shows. They reviewed a few points in January and February, approving some conditionally, denying others.

In early March, however, there was a flurry of activity that resulted in the permit being “released.”

There is one more unusual aspect to the permitting:

The city and the Community Foundation are realigning the property lines, a last-minute administrative nuisance regarding property bought more than three years ago.

According to city spokeswoman Carla Banks, the size of the site increased when crews built the new road, Abe Brenner Place, on the south end of the property.

Both groups must notify their banks of the change and submit new plats to the Guilford County Register of Deeds.

Once that’s settled, project officials can start negotiating the “guaranteed maximum price.”

Neither city officials nor the private fundraisers have said whether that final price will fall within the budget.

If it doesn’t, then the City Council must vote to fill in the gap, said former mayor Robbie Perkins, who championed the Tanger Center during his term.

Perkins said the council must not be shortsighted and fail to act if the project needs a financial boost.

“The biggest mistake we are making as a community is not getting this project off the ground,” he said.

“Whatever the City Council and the mayor need to do to get this project off the ground — they need to do it.”

Contact Margaret Moffett at (336) 373-7031 and follow @MargaretMoffett on Twitter.

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