ORLANDO – Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs has turned down a $30 million bridge loan request to help fund the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, calling it “ a substantial sum and it requires appropriate due diligence.”
Instead, Jacobs decided she wanted to call a public hearing on the issue before any further decisions were made on it.
In a letter to Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer, Jacobs wrote that “At the end of the day, the people who are ultimately accountable to our taxpayers are the two mayors and the County Comptroller, who have been entrusted by by our citizens to protect their hard earned tax dollars. I trust you agree that, before we commit significant resources to such an endeavor, there must be a full and transparent review.”
To that end, Jacobs wrote that she wanted to call a meeting with the board of directors for the Performing Arts Center “as soon as possible to discuss this issue and chart a course of action to proceed with this project.”
She encouraged Dyer to join that meeting.
Jacobs said when she initially got the request for the $30 million, she wanted her staff to review it to see if there were any possible cost saving measures that could be found. Orange County, like the rest of Central Florida, has a double-digit unemployment rate and a drop in property tax revenue since 2008 has forced county leaders to make cutbacks in spending.
When she got the report from her staff, Jacobs wrote, she found it “very disconcerting” because they discovered costs related to this project that had not been shared with either the public or the arts center’s board.
“Although our team has offered suggestions that would save the project millions,” Jacobs wrote to Dyer, “they also have learned about other serious challenges not shared with us or the public previously. Further, it appears that much of what they have learned has not been shared with all the DPAC (Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center) board members.”
Jacobs said her team uncovered many “serious financial and construction-related concerns” about the Performing Arts Center, which she said raise “critical technical and financial concerns about the way DPAC’s contracts are structured. If this information is even partially accurate, we have a major problem.”
While reiterating her support for a first-class performing arts center in Orlando, Jacobs said that was based on the clear understanding that this project “would be built efficiently, on time and on budget, and with sufficient revenues to protect the citizens of Orange County from operating deficits in the future. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be the case as we sit here today.”
Based on the briefing she got last week from her research team, Jacobs concluded, “I do not believe the project as it is currently structured, contracted and funded, is feasible.”
Among the concerns raised by Jacobs’ staff were that the center hasn’t yet raised its $25 million operating endowment, and so far has only brought in less than $3 million. The $25 million was promised to be raised before construction would begin.
The team was also concerned that private donations had fallen $50 million short of the $130 million the center promised to raise.
Jacobs said she and Mayor Dyer needed to address these concerns “promptly” before the project could move forward.
The Web site for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts notes that its mission is to create “a stage for the best performing artists from all over the region and the world,” so that everyone who visits the center “will leave inspired, informed and energized. Visitors are not spectators – they are active participants who contribute to the collective experience.”
Mayor Dyer and former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty reignited this project in 2003. The two mayors charged Jim Pugh, chairman of Epoch Properties Inc. and Jim Seneff, CEO of CNL Financial Inc. with leading efforts to define what the arts center should be, how much it would cost and how it should be financed. That same year, the Orlando Performing Arts Center Corporation, a 501(c)3 non-profit agency, was established.
By 2009, though, the weakness in the Central Florida was taking a toll on the project.
Funding from the Orange County Tourist Development Tax dropped, halting the original construction timeline. As the center’s Web site notes, “given the existing tourism industry decline, a rebound will be needed before funds become available for construction.”
Arts For Life, a campaign to build the performing arts center, was launched in 2009 to find donors to help fund it.
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