Born of Mayor Glenda Hood's determination to push a performing arts center and impose a new identity on downtown's moribund retail core, the arts district idea emerged as the anchor to a newly designated "cultural corridor." Starting roughly at City Hall, that corridor zigs and zags slightly along a northward route that parallels Magnolia Avenue and then North Orange Avenue before it reaches up to connect with the museums and theaters of Loch Haven Park. In between are the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, the antique vendors of North Orange Avenue, the scattered work spaces and storefronts just east of North Orange whose inhabitants sought and won designation as the Alden Arts District, and the former appliance store space that houses 11-year-old Theatre Downtown, one of the few fixtures on a theater landscape dominated by itinerant troupes and stages.
All of those things already exist. The challenge is how to complement them in a way that expands the vision.
So far, the most tangible display of the city's ambitions was the debut this fall of a monthly arts market, which joined the Saturday farmer's market under the I-4 highway overpass at Church Street. But spontaneity -- a desired element in any arts district -- is lacking. Exhibitors compete and are chosen in a juried process, rather than being allowed to just show up and create, and the city promises regular rotations of artists. On the whole it simply recreates in miniature the countless art shows that already sprout all over Central Florida most weekends in the fall and spring -- not a bad thing, but nothing new or original, either.
With little else churning, the greatest hopes continue to be pinned on the Central Florida Theatre Alliance (CFTA), a two-year-old organization of performers and performing groups. The group is currently leasing -- for $1 a year -- its office and a small theater space in a city garage near the Orlando Arena. And indeed, the city has promised at least $200,000 -- on the condition that CFTA raises another $200,000 -- toward the group's goal, shared by the mayor, of opening several small theaters in proximity and thereby launching the dream of a downtown theater district.
The plan to date calls for four theaters and three gallery spaces, with the city's seed money pledged toward renovations and first-year's rent. (Longer term, the CFTA has a goal of six theaters -- some of them given over primarily to one troupe, with others to be shared by several companies.) And fund-raising is on track; the alliance has $57,000 in the bank, with another $163,000 committed.
But as the reality sinks in of how little that money actually will buy, that drive has reached a crossroads. The goals haven't changed, but the CFTA's board has begun to split on how to achieve them -- and thus, how quickly the district might achieve credibility overall.
"There's no getting around this. We can't do what we thought we could do," said board member Lou Talley, an attorney and community theater actor, during a meeting this week. His comment followed the board's realization that it likely would have to spend most of its money upgrading potential theater spaces to required standards, only to find they'd have nowhere to go after that first year if the city subsidy and their own fundraising dried up.
The solution, as proposed by CFTA president Matt Wohl: Don't rent several spaces but buy a single building. Use the money as downpayment on a lease-purchase. The impact may be less -- with initially fewer theater spaces offering fewer opportunities for fewer performers to share space -- but the gains in credibility and permanence would be greater.
The board did not wholeheartedly back that plan. But they agreed at least to look into it.
As producer of the Orlando International Fringe Festival, Wohl is well-versed in makeshift theater. The 10-day festival of comedy and drama takes place each spring using storefronts and vacant offices whose charm is partially enhanced by the rickety wooden stands and bare-bones lighting that briefly transform them into performance spaces. But groups being asked to set up shop downtown are not interested in impermanence. And they've made it clear they don't want to duplicate the Fringe experience.
That puts the CFTA in a bind. Cost estimates to renovate just one of several possible sites into a ready theater facility could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The city's pledge to help fund just one year of operations makes that initial expense much less desirable. In addition, while Wohl knows the funds would go further in other parts of town where the real estate is not as pricey, CFTA is currently locked into the downtown plans -- and in fact, has been made an integral player in Hood's hopes for reviving the city center.
How willing the city will be to support requests that could include a slightly expanded district as well as expanded lease terms -- and how quickly a feasible site can be found -- remain to be seen.
"I still think a ‘downtown' theater district should be downtown," says Wohl, who noted that two longstanding, viable participants -- Theatre Downtown and Orlando Theatre Project -- are both settled well beyond the defined boundary. (Orlando Theatre Project is based at Seminole Community College in Sanford.) But if anyone is to move downtown and not be subject to rising rents, "purchasing a building is the way to go."