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Years ago, the late businesswoman and champion for the arts Rachel Broadhurst and a group of like-minded individuals envisioned a centralized hub for the performing arts in Myrtle Beach – pulling together all components of this otherwise fragmented community and housing it under one roof. At the time, sights were set on the iconic Rivoli Theatre on Chester Street, but the old Rivoli was found to be fraught with too many issues to make it workable – including a nasty asbestos problem. [A local nonprofit ministry, Ground Zero, is in the process of renovating the venue for use as a Christian teen club.]

Over time, the concept morphed into plans for a brand new venue – a performing arts center in the heart of Myrtle Beach on land adjacent to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. This compelling idea was presented to Myrtle Beach City Council in a feasibility study in 2006, revealing the big picture: a 35,000-square-foot complex housing an auditorium of 500-600 [now 843] fixed seats with a fully-equipped performance stage and orchestra pit along with a smaller black box theater. Renderings at that time also showed mixed-use residential/retail possibilities.

What was the Rivoli Theatre Group became the Myrtle Beach Performing Arts Center, or MBPAC []. Due to the tireless efforts of this organization, an initiative made it onto the ballot in November as a referendum – and a majority Myrtle Beach voters gave the nod of approval for the City of Myrtle Beach to issue up to $10 million in bonds to fund the project by slightly increasing property taxes. The final count was 1,907 to 1,639 - a margin of 268 votes.

According to background information on the referendum posted on the city's Web site:

“As general obligation bonds, the city will repay the money from property tax revenue. It is estimated that an additional 2.5 mills of property tax will be required to fund the debt service” on the bond issue. In the simplest terms laid out in the document, and per $100,000 of market value, this translates into $10 for owner-occupied residential property assessed at four percent, $15 for non-owner occupied residential property and commercial property assesses at six per cent, and $26.25 for manufacturing and utility property assessed at 10.5 percent. This also impacts personal property, per $20,000 of market value - $3 for automobiles and $5.25 for other property, such as boats for example.

Still, raising taxes, regardless of the reason, isn't generally popular among Grand Strand constituencies.

But the passing of this referendum did not obligate the city to build anything, but was rather a green light from residents to finance the bonds if or when the city decides to pull the trigger.

While Myrtle Beach is still grappling with the ups and downs of PAC possibilities, Florence residents have already enjoyed three seasons of events at the resplendent Francis Marion Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2011 and could well serve as a template for what is possible here, as we shall see – a juxtaposition of what is and what could be.

Sharing the load

MBPAC board member Jamie Broadhurst, president of Century 21 Broadhurst and son of Rachel Broadhurst, asserts that significant progress has been made in establishing an operational budget for the proposed venue in Myrtle Beach. “We met with city council previous to their budget retreat a couple of weeks ago,” he says. “The projected operational budget for this facility would actually be break-even from my projections for at least the first four years.”

Local organizations likely to use the MBPAC are Carolina Master Chorale, Long Bay Symphony, Carolina Improv Company, Arts Alive and more – including Broadway touring companies, dance troupes and musical acts. The proposed facility would feature the area’s only permanent orchestra pit, which organizers say is a requirement for top-quality national touring performances.

The idea would be for the city to share operational costs with the MBPAC. A symbiotic relationship with the Myrtle Beach Convention Center could come into play as well. “We could have the theater blocked out for 30 shows a year, but you have days that are vacant,” says Broadhurst. “If the Convention Center in turn can utilize the venue as proposed to their marketplace, then we have a facility that starts to generate additional revenue.” The idea is a centralized venue existing in tandem with the Convention Center. “We have tried not to create a castle in the desert.”

Broadhurst, in lock-step with the passion his mother shared for the arts and for Myrtle Beach, is optimistic that the venue will come to fruition. “The majority [of Myrtle Beach residents] voted yes,” he says. “Most of the time the public is pretty aware and cognizant about decisions regarding their taxes – and to have the public pronounce through the voting boxes, ‘yes – raise our taxes because we like this facility’ – to me this is a pretty impacting and positive vote in the direction that the residents of Myrtle Beach would like to go.”

According to a recent Sun News story, “the City of Myrtle Beach and the arts community could share the more than $436,000 operating budget of a proposed performing arts center over a five year period, with the city providing the bulk of the money.” Says Broadhurst: “The MBPAC [will have] $360,000 in the form a reimbursement from the $10,000,000 in bonding for the building of the facility. That is the amount we have already spent to develop the architectural drafts and definitive designs. The proposal on the table is that $200,000 of that go to us for funding, in addition to all the fundraising we will do upon approval from city council. The residual $160,000 will be maintained in an account with the city for eventual shortfalls.”

Businesswoman and MBPAC co-chair Penny Boling [Century 21 Boling] says that the MBPAC would raise the bar for arts and culture in the area. “The referendum passed and the voters have spoken,” she says. “I don’t know what else city council needs. Do you?”

She adds that City Council recently returned from its annual budget retreat. “The city is short on their budget, but they would be short on their budget with or without the MBPAC – and there will be no costs for the city for probably the first four years. It’s absolutely a no-brainer.”

Getting down to brass tacks, Boling says that the tax revenue raised will only build the building. “It will not cover the operational costs, which will be covered by the arts community and by the city as a shared expense between both parties,” she says. “And we will have fundraisers, benefits and of course we will make money hopefully from the shows that we bring in. We are for profit on that end, but nonprofit on everything else.”

In the balance

Boling says city cuncil could vote on the whole enchilada in June. “They will make their decision about whether the city can build it or not,” she says. “It’s up to the city to pull the trigger – and then we’ll sell the bonds from the referendum and then hopefully we will start construction late fall or early winter. It would be a 16-18 month build – so we could be open by a year from next spring.”

But Mark Kruea, public information officer for the City of Myrtle Beach, says there is no answer at this time. “Council talked briefly about it during the budget retreat,” he says. “I’m sure it will come up again during budget discussions in the next few weeks. We’ll see how those talks go.”

Myrtle Beach City Councilman Mike Chestnut says discussions are ongoing. “The bottom line is that in order for us to do this, it’s going to take a tax increase, and that is something that council is going to have to weigh out to see if that’s what we’re going to do.”

But what of the passage of the referendum in November, with the majority - a slim majority, but never the less a majority - of Myrtle Beach residents indicating that they were OK with this tax increase?

“It’s not as easy as saying that the public said ‘OK’. Now we have to figure out a way to fund it. I would love to see it happen – but it’s just a balancing act to see how we can make it happen.” Chestnut adds that he thinks the arts community did its part to build up community support for the project. “We’re probably going to have a budget workshop, and that’s where it’s going to come up. The budget has got to be in place by July 1.”

Councilman Wayne Gray says that the MBPAC Board of Directors has met with city staff and have developed a pro forma budget of revenue and expenses. “That was reviewed in a workshop and then we had further discussions about it at [budget] retreat, coupled with our entire budget. There really hasn’t been any progress made since the referendum,” he says. “We will continue to discuss it, I imagine along with all of our other priorities in the budget between now and the end of June.”

Councilman Mike Lowder declined to comment via telephone. Weekly Surge also reached out to Mayor John Rhodes and all other City Council members but at press time there were no additional responses.

A lesson from Flotown?

Just up the road in Florence is a shining example of what a performing arts center can do for a community.

The Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center, located in the heart of the Florence Downtown Arts and Cultural District, has enjoyed three seasons since it opened in 2011.

This from

“The Francis Marion University Performing Arts Center seeks to be a catalyst in stimulating economic development and tourism growth. Its location in downtown Florence contributes to the revitalization of the city center and promotes the area as a cultural arts destination. Through collaboration with school systems, public agencies, and civic organizations, the Performing Arts Center promotes excellence in arts education, creation, and presentation. The cooperation and mutual support of university, local, and regional institutions in this endeavor can only add to the vitality and continuing progress of this part of South Carolina. The FMU Performing Arts Center, an estimated 61,000 square foot facility located in downtown Florence, has been made possible through a partnership between FMU and the City of Florence and is partially funded through a substantial private gift from the Doctors Bruce & Lee Foundation. Its main elements include an 849-seat Mainstage with a fly tower, a 100-seat flexible Black Box space, and an Academic Wing for the Department of Fine Arts.”

Says Broadhurst: “I have been several times to the Florence facility. [Director] Laura Sims was of great assistance to us, and we met with her several times. It’s a great facility. We felt that it was very close to the demographic that we have in Myrtle Beach. The biggest distinguishing factor between there and here is that their facility is associated with Francis Marion University. So they have the support and the backing of the college, so it’s a little bit different in that context.”

Sims was hired in 2007 during the design and development phase. “It gave me ample time to really get to know the community very well – and all of the constituencies that would be using the building,” she says, adding that the facility was one of the anchor points for downtown revitalization. Since the PAC was completed, several restaurants came along [Victor’s Bistro, Long Grain Café] as well as the swank Hotel Florence, which opened in 2013.

Downtown revitalization in Florence has ramped up since the adoption of a comprehensive plan in 2010 by Florence City Council in connection with the Florence Downtown Development Corporation [FDDC].

With Francis Marion University’s PAC playing host to so many different groups, is this interrelationship a sort of juggling act?

“We made sure that our primary residents were the first ones on the calendar, and of course the department of fine arts was the head of that because of being a university entity. And then after that – part of it depends on of course the relationships as far as the other groups – it’s the Florence Symphony Orchestra – it’s the Masterworks choir here locally. In our second season we added the South Carolina Dance Theatre because they are the only non-profit dance company in the region.”

Sims says that once these groups are in place, she then concentrates on presenting various events. “We bring in theater, music, and dance – all sorts of things involved with the building. Then after that we open it up to rentals – and of course the other outside academic events. Those kinds of things fit in between, and we try to make all of that happen as best we can.”

A new development on the FMU PAC calendar are PAC Plus events, which have already brought in Travis Tritt, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart, with dates scheduled for Clint Black [May 30] and Indigo Girls with the Florence Symphony Orchestra [June 20].

Sims says the biggest event so far was the Opening Gala weekend at the Francis Marion PAC:

“Four days straight of events on our Mainstage (Roberta Flack, Judy Collins, the CSO Spiritual Ensemble, and the Florence Symphony Orchestra) with a dance recital in our BB&T Amphitheatre and a Shakespeare showcase in our Black Box in between the Mainstage events. The audiences were phenomenal and the logistics involved a majority of departments in the university.”

She says the biggest event so far this season was country crooner Tritt. “Of course, we still have Clint Black, the Indigo Girls, and a few more artists to perform before the end of the season. We’re still going to do some Broadway shows next year – and still doing our school shows where we bus in kids from around the region to do performances – and then couple of other theatrical events as well.”

Sims says that response from the community has been very positive. “It’s always fun when you have new people who come into the building who have never been in here before. They are quite amazed – and say they can’t believe this kind of building is here in Florence. It’s just a wonderful, acoustically sounding building and a beautiful space.” Her goal is to try to make sure folks feel comfortable.

“When Marty Stuart came Saturday [May 3], he loved it and was talking about the state of performing arts centers across the country in relation to country music. Country music fans aren’t necessarily used to coming to PACs to see their artists,” she says, adding that these fans might be used to arenas and coming to a PAC is an adjustment. “But the fans just loved it and had a wonderful time.”

There seems to be something for everybody here. “I’m excited about what’s happening here in Florence and I hope it does spread throughout the region. It puts South Carolina on the map for entertainment venues – the place to go for all sorts of different events coming through the state.”

No shortage of opinions

Coastal Carolina University theater professor Steve Earnest is on the MBPAC board as well as the board of Atlantic Stage, what he says is the area’s only Equity professional theater company which would be interested in utilizing the black box theater component at the proposed MBPAC.. Earnest says he saw progress with the MBPAC for a time, and recounts his experience with the recent workshop with the city and the Convention Center. “It was really well conceived and there was a lot of positive vibe in the room when we left that day. But evidently there was a little bit of fear expressed by a couple of city council members about moving forward right now in the current bond market. Making the finances work is the next big hurdle.”

Would CCU be interested in using the MBPAC if completed?

“That’s a sticky kind of a thing,” he says, alluding to the fact that CCU may be considering building a university performing arts center eventually. “Back in that feasibility study, the consultant sort of told us that it’s really unlikely that tourists are going to get on [U.S.] 501 and drive 20 minutes (from the beach to Conway) to see a show.” Conversely, he added that the study revealed that folks from Conway would likely be interested in heading into Myrtle Beach to catch a show.

“Timing is everything,” says Earnest. “I think that in the next six months we will see this thing come to its finality one way or another. I still think there is a great, positive energy in the air – and right now a real chance that we’ll make this happen.”

The elected politicians are wary of being tried in the court of public opinion, and the Myrtle Beach Performing Arts Center has elicited no shortage of opinions, especially in the social media stratosphere.

So we turned to Facebook and asked local residents - not PAC committee members or public office holders if they thought the Myrtle Beach Performing Arts Center is a good idea.

“I've watched Myrtle Beach struggle to become an entertainment destination for 28 years now,” responded local concert pianist Rocky Fretz. “A couple surviving shows aren't going to make that goal a reality, so I think I like the idea. What could the downside be?”

Mix 97.7 program director and radio personality Ron Roberts would prefer a different sort of venue:

“We get this for the wine and cheese crowd but can't get an arena for events the bourgeois would attend. Power to the people (with big money),” he says.