- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Michigan, at least $235 million in public and private money is being leveraged to pull in audiences to arts venues in downtown Flint. In Westhampton Beach, N.Y., Bill Cosby and a broad swath of entertainers are taking the stage of a new arts center.

Communities across America are spending taxpayers’ money when it comes to building new performing arts venues or restoring historic old ones, and D.C. residents are proving no exception. But stakeholders here are mixing caution with optimism on the restoration of the 100-year-old Howard Theatre as it passed another milestone Tuesday.

The D.C. Council has approved legislation that virtually ensures the restoration of the Howard, the historic entertainment venue that has been closed since the early 1980s. The council action follows the Sept. 2 groundbreaking ceremony that pulled together three generations of Howard Theatre supporters, who swayed to the rhythms of James Brown before and after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council member Jim Graham announced their support to the enthusiastic crowd.

But now that the ceremonial groundbreaking shovels have become keepsakes, questions still linger for developers.

Will the new Howard be competitively positioned in Washington’s entertainment market? And will the project’s board of directors be able to attract an entertainment executive of international stature to help get the fledgling venue off to a strong start?

The theater is currently operated by the nonprofit Howard Theatre Restoration Inc., which eventually will step aside to let a private concern run the theater to help make sure it turns a profit.

Lawmakers said they don’t want the new theater to depend on tax dollars and they have put the onus for the Howard’s survival and success on Mr. Graham, the Democrat who represents the political district where the Howard is located and who pushed through a package of tax relief to help finance the restoration.

The new Howard Theatre, now a neglected shell of its former glory, is slated to reopen in November 2011 as part of continuing revitalization efforts to the U Street corridor — one of Washington’s liveliest entertainment sections.

Sports bars and restaurants serving ethnic cuisine as well as new upscale housing have made the area around the Howard a hot spot, but lawmakers and longtime city residents said the Howard should be turned into an eclectic, multigenre venue that books the right talent to draw diverse crowds.

“Look at Blues Alley and the 9:30 Club,” said native Washingtonian Ronald Crockett, who used to work at the Howard.

“I don’t know what the plan is,” he said, “but I would love to see it reopen. It’s kind of heartbreaking how it looks now.”

He added, “It’s got to be more than just a jazz theater. They will have to broaden the appeal. Blues Alley has managed to stay alive for years and years because of variety.”

Lawmakers said Mr. Graham, who is also a member of the theater project’s board, should pull in high-profile names as board members to help oversee the business aspects of the Howard.

Two names mentioned this week were Debra Lee, chief executive officer and president of cable network BET, and restaurateur Sheila Johnson, who also owns the Washington Mystics WNBA franchise.

Ms. Lee said she is a huge fan of the Howard, recalling how her father “used to stand outside the theater to see the talent come and go.”

“I don’t know the business model, but D.C. could use another entertainment venue,” she said.

The District effort is part of a national trend to use arts spaces as an anchor to improve urban and suburban business districts.

In New York, Westhampton residents decided to open a new performing arts venue when the local economy began to slow. The new center is funded by patrons who not only buy individual tickets to its events but also seasonal ticket passes.

In Flint, politicians and taxpayers decided to restore the city’s struggling downtown long before the recession hit. Since 2002, local officials have spent $235 million on arts, theater and revitalization projects, including $31 million in government funding.

The tab for renovating the Howard is estimated at about $25 million, with half of that being provided courtesy of D.C. taxpayers.

Mr. Crockett cautioned that, while he would love to return to the Howard and see live musical performances, D.C. officials failed to follow through on earlier promises to restore the venue, built exactly 100 years ago in 1910.

“This wasn’t the first groundbreaking,” he said.

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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