Not ready for prime time

For several years, certainly preceding the specific, successful bond proposal for the purpose in 2004, there have been calls for a districtwide performing-arts center for AISD. The mantra is that Austin's is the state's largest school district without one. Now, everyone continues to agree it's a good idea – but no one knows where to put it.

In 2004, a $15 million PAC was proposed: $8.8 million would come from the bond ($7.7 million for the building, $1.1 million for land), but bond counsel calculated it would take $7 million in matching private donations (as made conditional on the ballot) to enable the spending. District officials say they made several attempts to find a commercial patron but were unsuccessful. When discussions began for a 2008 bond, the PAC came up again, but with construction costs having soared from $175 to $250 per square foot, the total cost estimate was now closer to $30 million. (Since the 2004 bond has not yet expired, in principle that money could still be used to cut that figure in half – if the matching funds are finally found.)

One proposal was to add the PAC in some way to the plans for the new Long Center for the Performing Arts at Auditorium Shores, which appeared to have available land, as well as facilities and utilities the PAC could share. Both district officials and Long Center management supported the idea, but in the end it proved impractical, due to space and parking problems. "As staff of both organizations got closer together," said AISD board President Mark Williams, "it just didn't fit with our needs and the constraints of the site.

After much debate, the idea seemed dead for 2008, until developer and philanthropist Dick Rathgeber offered a gift of land at the new Muel­ler development. With his promise of an additional $2.5 million donation, the gift could also make available 2004's $8.8 million (the district would first need attorney general verification of its numbers). But Rathgeber does not in fact own the tract of land – he would have to make a deal with the city and the developer – and the tract, with limited road access, isn't designated on the Muel­ler master plan for a large traffic generator like the PAC. At the time he made the offer, Rathgeber had yet to contact either the developer (Catellus) or the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition to discuss the proposal – something that coalition leader Jim Walker sees as undermining the public consultation process that has been the hallmark of the Mueller project. Walker warned against using the idea of a Mueller site as a way to persuade voters on PAC funding or trying to circumvent the Mueller public process, adding, "We can't allow the district to do a nudge-nudge, wink-wink deal on the bond issue."

In the short term, the remaining options are limited. The Citizens' Bond Advisory Committee even discussed accepting McCallum High's 2004 offer to house the new center, but several members expressed concerns that it would instead quickly become an extension of the school, rather than a districtwide facility. In its final recommendations, the committee did not include the PAC – not because of any opposition but, as member Mark Yznaga summed up the committee's feelings, because "the PAC is not cooked. It's just not ready to go."

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