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The Arts of the Deal: Long Center supporters hope to pan for gold in Waller Creek

By Mike Clark-Madison, February 14, 2003, News

Last year around this time, I was writing a chin-pulling think piece on the decline of Austin's dot-com dreams, supersized as they were back in 2000, when the NASDAQ stood at 5,000. As I write this, the NASDAQ stands at 1,296.68, and Austin's civic dreams are now Happy Meal sized. But there still ain't enough room in the Happy Meal box for everyone's pet project. Choices must be made.

Austin voters may get to make one May 3 -- to reallocate $25 million in bonds approved in 1998 for the Waller Creek Tunnel flood control project to the Long Center for the Performing Arts. The latter, also authorized in 1998 -- allowing the private nonprofit formerly known as Arts Center Stage to convert city-owned Palmer Auditorium into a world-class concert venue -- was supposed to be built entirely with private money, which five (or even three) years ago seemed a realistic enough goal.

So much so, in fact, that Arts Center Stage supersized itself more than once. Back in November 1998, the price tag was $50 million. By 2000, Arts Center Stage had raised almost that entire amount, helped tremendously by a $20 million gift from Joe and Teresa Long -- but by then the Long Center's budget had grown to $89 million. The group, under the aegis of Dellionaire and future Texas Senate candidate Ben Bentzin, announced proudly it was halfway there. Three years later, it's still halfway there -- because even though it's now raised $62 million, the Long Center budget has now ballooned to $110 million.

Meanwhile, Under the Creek --

The Waller Creek Tunnel project also got supersized, but in a different way. The tunnel, intended to rescue the lower reaches of the creek -- which runs right through downtown Austin -- from regular and destructive floods, is now priced at $54 million and remains in limbo, if not actually dead, while the city tries to figure out how to pay for it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Lower Colorado River Authority have both taken a pass on the tunnel for now. And Vignette Corp., which was going to build its headquarters at the foot of Waller Creek and help pay for the project, is no longer in the civic-dreams business.

An oft-discussed financing mechanism for the tunnel is a tax increment financing district on the Waller Creek corridor, which if it weren't in a flood zone could be developed, advocates say, as a high-intensity urban "creek walk." The resulting boost to the tax base -- part of which, in a TIF, would be routed straight back to pay off new tunnel bonds -- could cover the cost and then some. But TIFs have a checkered history in Texas and require the buy-in of all taxing entities, and you may have noticed that cooperation between city, county, and school district has not been all it could be.

The tunnel bonds are backed by hotel bed-tax revenue -- it's a "venue project," allowed by a quirky state law (designed to help Dallas and Houston build sports arenas), as part of the expansion of the Convention Center, which sits on Waller Creek. For that reason, the money can't be used to meet many of Austin's other groaning fiscal needs -- but it clearly can be used for the Long Center. The $25 million may be enough to spur private donors to match that amount, and the Long Center could break ground before the end of the year -- an important time frame, because the major arts groups planning to live there need to be out of UT's performing arts complex by 2006.

So is this a win-win (or, maybe, a Wynn-Wynn) situation? Then why am I having so hard a time embracing it?

Neither Double nor Nothing

Partly, admittedly, because I've been a long and loud advocate for the tunnel, and so far most of the opposition to the new proposal has come from people (like Downtown landowner Perry Lorenz) of like mind on that subject. If, on the other hand, the words "creek walk" give you hives and you think the tunnel is a boondoggle, you may find this an attractive way to kill it without appearing small-minded, if that matters to you. (There are other good reasons besides a creek walk to support the tunnel -- including saving human lives -- but without redevelopment, the cost is probably too great.) And I find it hard to see how diverting the $25 million from the tunnel will not kill it.

By contrast, I've always been somewhat ambivalent about renovating Palmer Auditorium; why not simply build a new building, downtown instead of south of the river, akin to the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, an indisputably world-class facility which cost "only" $65 million? Even when we endorsed the 1998 vote that made the Long Center possible, we suspected that eventually its backers would ask for permission to simply tear Palmer down. Clearly, the renovation has not been a money-saving strategy.

But I realize how hideously unpopular it is to not support the arts in Austin -- which has become synonymous with supporting the Long Center. Whatever. Even if we redirect the tunnel bonds, is the Long Center the best way we could spend $25 million in city money on the arts? That sum, let alone the $62 million already raised, could build a smaller, less ornate venue, designed by architects less empyrean than Skidmore Owings and Merrill, that could meet the needs of community arts groups who have become attached to the Long Center project as it's snowballed and who do as much as the symphony, opera, and ballet to make Austin a mecca of the notorious "creative class." Of course, those smaller groups aren't the ones who need the Long Center built as soon as possible.

So how, in less than five years, did the Long Center go from a $50 million project to a $110 million one? What changed? Our needs? Or the size -- and sensibility -- of our dreams? The tunnel is a massive engineering project to tame unpredictable natural forces; by contrast, the needs of local arts groups are relatively predictable. Before we support throwing the Waller Creek Tunnel out of the Happy Meal box, shouldn't we think about a downsized $62 million Long Center? end story

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