Naked City

Creek Walk vs. Long Center?

Some Downtown boosters are ready to rumble over a proposal that would siphon $25 million from the stalled Waller Creek improvement project and redirect it to the also-stalled Long Center for the Performing Arts. The Long Center, a $110 million dream project planned to be financed solely by private donations, has only raised $62 million and is under time constraints to break ground this year so the building -- the renovation of the old Palmer Auditorium -- can be completed by 2006, when local arts groups must vacate UT's Bass Concert Hall. So leaders of Arts Center Stage, the group managing the Long Center project, have asked the city to kick in some funding. "Three of the largest arts organizations will be literally homeless when that happens, so we need to find some way to jumpstart this project to meet that 2006 deadline," said Long Center President and CEO David Fleming.

The most attractive source for a jumpstart, supporters say, is the $25 million in bond money that voters approved in 1998 for a flood-diversion tunnel on Waller Creek -- which was bundled with the Convention Center expansion as a "venue project" under the state's stadium bill, allowing for a hike in hotel-bed taxes to cover the cost. The tunnel is on hold because the actual cost of the task has jumped substantially -- to more than $50 million -- since the 1998 vote. (The Waller Creek bonds have already been sold.)

Arts Center Stage leaders, including former Mayor Bruce Todd and attorney Pete Winstead, have already introduced the $25 million idea in private meetings with City Council members. If the council agrees, the proposal will go before voters in the May 3 election. The $25 million infusion could inspire other potential donors to provide the match to meet the goal, Fleming said.

But at least two Downtown leaders are waging personal campaigns against diverting the money from Waller Creek. Developer Perry Lorenz, who owns several large parcels along Waller Creek, has for years envisioned the creek as the next River Walk -- if its floods can be tamed -- and he wants the funding to stay put. "Not that the Long Center isn't a wonderful thing that is desperately needed," he said, "but the improvements made to Waller Creek would be a great public investment" -- that would, he said, spur the development of hotels, restaurants, and shops along the creek's banks, all of which would generate tax revenue for the city. He and others say the Waller Creek project could be revived by way of a cooperative effort between the city, the county, and the LCRA.

Another Downtown leader and resident, Chris Riley -- chair of the city Planning Commission -- concurs: "To renege on the [Waller Creek] deal at this point would be unfair and unwise. I don't question the importance of the Long Center ... [but it] was supposed to be privately funded, and the city can't afford to bail it out at the expense of our infrastructure."

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