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VOL. 128 | NO. 47 | Friday, March 08, 2013

Improv Time

Orpheum leaders rethink expansion due to lack of donor dollars

By Sarah Baker

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The Orpheum Theatre Memphis’ expansion of its iconic South Main campus is being “re-energized” due to an unanticipated lack of donor dollars.

The original plan of The Orpheum Performing Arts and Leadership Centre, as seen from Main Street, could end up being smaller in scale because of a lack of donor dollars.

(Photo Courtesy of The Crump Firm Inc.)

The Memphis Development Foundation, the organization that operates The Orpheum, in May closed on its $1.2 million purchase of the 0.87-acre parking lot immediately to the south of the 85-year-old theater at 203 S. Main St. from Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division.

Original plans, designed by The Crump Firm Inc., called for a new Performing Arts and Leadership Centre, a three-story, 50,000-square-foot facility to help alleviate The Orpheum’s overcrowding while strengthening the next generation of theatergoers.

While the mission is still the same, the $10.7 million price estimate has escalated to around $14 million, said Pat Halloran, president and CEO of Memphis Development Foundation.

“We’re going to have to cut that back because we’re finding that there’s a lot of competition out there right now for the capital campaign dollars from those that normally support positive projects like this,” Halloran said. “We’ve had kind of a crude awakening in the solicitation of funding.”

Memphis Development Foundation has retained Tony Bologna and Scott Bojko as its advisers. It’s also since hired Grinder, Taber & Grinder Inc., which has targeted the 13-month project to be complete around August 2014.

But that’s only if all goes well in recruiting financing.

“We did so well raising the (initial) $5.5 million, we think that with a new fundraising plan of action that will appeal to others that we may not have thought of in the beginning,” Halloran said.

“The board has recommitted to making this happen, so they’re re-energized. The staff at the theater has stepped back, reassessed where we are and are in the process of reorganizing a capital campaign that will direct our goal toward the new amount, whatever that is.”

Halloran said it’s not easy doing things in Memphis.

“We have a big city with major challenges and there’s so many neat projects going on at the same time that it’s hard to finance all of these,” he said. “If you took binoculars and could see a little farther, you’d see the Sears building and Overton Square not too far from where we are. I mean, those are huge projects in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

But what makes the Performing Arts and Leadership Centre different than many of the city’s ongoing projects is The Orpheum and Memphis Development Foundation aren’t accepting “one dime from government,” Halloran said. That means no requests for easements, PILOTs, tax incentives or credits.

“We made that decision because we don’t want to be a drain on the taxpayer,” Halloran said. “We want to do this as a positive collation of individuals and companies that want to see the culture in the city maintained.”

In the event that Memphis Development Foundation does have to scale its original plans down, which is highly likely, its top priorities are the rehearsal hall and black box theater. Next, in order if money allows, will come office space for The Orpheum’s education and development departments, a catering kitchen, a board room and 40-seat conference room that could be rented out to companies, dressing rooms, a shop area and storage space.

“If we need to cut back, then we can cut back in the areas where they’re not totally servicing our education programs and the kids that we want to bring in,” Halloran said. “But therein lies the challenge – if that’s where all of the reductions have to come, that’s going to be a tough decision because we weren’t going to spend a lot of money in those areas to begin with.”

Halloran said The Orpheum accommodates 60,000 people a year, and the “state-of-the-art, first-rate quality education center” addition will allow for an expansion of up to 90,000 patrons annually.

“Our project is going to be a major enhancement in the area between the Main Street Mall and South Main,” Halloran said. “We’re going to draw tens of thousands of people to our center every year, and those people are going to have an economic enhancement for the restaurants and other businesses in the Downtown area. The ripple effect is going to be considerable.”

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