Government May Fund Performing Arts Center

OCEAN CITY – The question on whether or not the town of Ocean City needs a performing arts center of any kind seems a bit more complicated than simply “to build or not to build?”

Ongoing efforts from both the private and public sector in recent months to bring a performing arts center to the Ocean City area in some capacity have been met with mixed reviews, with the main arguments against the idea revolving around financial risks in such a perilous time.

City Engineer Terry McGean and Tourism Director Mike Noah have announced plans to upgrade the existing convention center by taking half of the main ballroom and potentially installing a 1,700-fixed- theater-style seat performing arts center that could be used to bring theatre, music, special speakers and other events to the convention center, which could help to fill the void felt by many in the town who think Ocean City lacks art and culture and increase convention center business in the off-season and shoulder months.

Local Realtor Peck Miller has spearheaded a local group of business owners, including Seacrets owner Leighton Moore and Clarion owner Dr. Lenny Berger and numerous others, that have vocalized not only their desire for a performing arts center in Ocean City, but the absolute need for it.

In the past year, Miller, who claims to have been working on bringing a performing arts center to this area since 2004, has come before the town of Berlin proposing a redesign of the old “Cannery” to create a 300-seat theater style performing arts center. Worcester County told Miller that there was no funding available to pay for the project, so Miller had to seek funding elsewhere, namely, from a private source.

“There was a study done in Worcester County a few years ago that said that this area actually needs three performing arts venues. One small theatre like the one I proposed in Berlin, one Merriweather-pavillion style outdoor ampitheater somewhere off Route 50 and a 1,500-2,000-seat venue somewhere near the convention center. When I saw that study, I was extremely surprised and excited,” he said.

In addition to the Berlin project, Miller, with the help of architect Jeff Schoelkopf of the Old Pro Golf mini-golf family, also designed a full-scale 1,800-seat performing arts center that would neighbor the existing Roland E. Powell Center and include a five-story parking garage, which would add approximately 500 spots.

That project, which could carry a $50 million price-tag, seems to be irrelevant at this point for the time being, especially if the City Council approves a $5 million upgrade to the existing convention center.

“Everyone asks me if I’m upset about this, but I couldn’t be more elated,” Miller said. “This is a perfect opportunity for the town to get a performing arts center to not only attract business to the town, but maintain what we already have.”

Miller called the proposed $5 million upgrade to the building a “no-brainer,” citing the funding would be in place via the food and beverage tax and added, “if we can do the majority of what my full scale concept was for $5 million, I don’t see why we shouldn’t do this tomorrow.”

Some have argued that Ocean City has tried to do entertainment-style events at the convention center with little to no success. Past history has showed that concerts usually lose money.

“I don’t ever remember having an entertainment venue that has ever worked in this town, said City Councilman Jim Hall at last Monday’s council meeting. “We lost our butt on bands and entertainment. That has not been a good thing for us, and it just didn’t work.”

Noah responded to that claim saying, “I’ve never asked the city to risk one dime on entertainment as I’ve always gone to private enterprise. Do all those shows make money? Certainly not, but if it’s done right it could. If they consider the convention center an asset, they have to maintain it.

Hall, who conveyed his disdain for renovations of any kind at this time on the convention center “calling it the best maintained building in town”, conceded later in the week that he is very much in favor of a performing arts center in Ocean City, just not at this time.

“I support the performing arts, and everyone I talk to wants one, but let’s do it in the right place at the right time, and make sure the numbers are right, and wait till the economy looks good,” Hall said. “We have no idea how bad things are going to get.”

Hall suggested that a performing arts center should be funded by a private entity and not by local government, food tax or no food tax.

“People in this town have had it with high prices. I pay this food tax everyday and it was agreed that it would eventually go away after these bonds were paid off, said Hall. “Everyone is on board to spend government money. Everyone is always rah-rah about it, but wants us to fit the bill.”

Tourism Director Mike Noah told The Dispatch that the difference between the town of Ocean City and other places, such as Virginia Beach, which boasts 14 performing arts centers, is that Ocean City lacks one major component in the equation.

“For lack of a better term, Ocean City doesn’t have a sugar-daddy,” said Noah. “We don’t have a wealthy private investor or investors that has a vested interest in promoting and funding arts and culture.”

In comparison, Virginia Beach’s Sandler Center has a “sugar-daddy” of sorts in the way of Sandler Foods Company and numerous private supporters.

Miller said that entertainment in the town of Ocean City has never worked because of the way the venture was handled.

“What we’ve done in the past is not the model that works. First of all, we need a good venue to enable it to work, but we aren’t inventing anything new here,” he said. “There are ways to do it successfully that will help businesses in the off-season and supplement the town’s income in the summer. If we can get a better ballroom, use the facility space better, while not really taking away that much space, all while not raising anyone’s taxes, the sooner we start on it the better.”

The creation of the fixed seats in the performing arts center seems to be the big hold up for many including Councilman Jim Hall and Seaside Boat Show co-chairman Jim Flaig, who agreed with Miller’s notion that the decision to upgrade the convention center should be an easy one.

“It is a no-brainer, with the exception of the fixed seats. If you make those seats portable, I’m all for it. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money, and the better that building is, the better it is for all of us,” said Flaig.

Despite concerns for the economy and whether or not people will come to see a concert at a fixed seat or a portable seat performing arts center, Miller says he continues to go back to something his daughter mentioned when the town’s upgrades went public last week.

“She said, ‘dad, if they build this in time, we could have my 2011 Stephen Decatur graduation there, which would be so cool,’” he said.

(Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. Next week we will explore whether a performing arts center could be successful in Ocean City, including an interview with a local resident who is a music industry production manager that says it “most certainly could be done.”)