The toddler stage

Miami's new Carnival Center endures a few bumps and bruises as it seeks to gain its footing in the arts scene.

Published May 13, 2007


The new Carnival Center for the Performing Arts puts to test the theory of arts as a catalyst for economic development.

But when theory meets reality, there can be problems.

That was made clear to me two weeks ago as I gazed from a seventh-floor hotel room a few blocks north of the center in downtown Miami.

To the west I could see blocks of vacant land and rundown buildings. The Miami Herald headquarters stands to the east, overlooking Biscayne Bay, but otherwise, there was little sign of life on a weekend. On Biscayne Boulevard, many of the storefronts were empty and littered with trash. The only places to get something to eat were a Checkers and a Burger King.

To the northeast, marching up the bay, is a line of soaring condo towers under construction, with plenty of $1-million-plus units for sale. Clearly, this represents the hoped-for prosperous future of the area as an arts district, but with a serious real estate slump developing in South Florida, it may be a while before the promise is realized.

I was in Miami to attend a new opera, Anna Karenina, and one of the more piquant experiences on opening night was to observe droves of well-dressed operagoers trekking across the urban wasteland that surrounds the giant arts center.

Amazingly, the Carnival Center, with a price tag of almost $475-million, neglected to include a parking garage in its construction. Since the center opened last fall, patrons have had to make do with valet parking or use surface lots scattered around the shabby neighborhood that many people see as unsafe.

"The parking pretty much is what it is, " Michael Hardy said, with a sigh, when I interviewed him. Hardy is chief executive of the center, and he has suffered withering criticism from people who are accustomed to more convenient parking.

Miami-Dade County, which owns the center, has parking garages in the works, but it will be several years before they are built. Hardy said the problem is somewhat overstated, citing a recent survey that found 75 percent of audience members have no difficulty parking their cars in a lot and walking a block or two.

"But the perception is real, and the perception is hurting business, " he said.

Parking isn't the only problem. In its first season, the Carnival Center has piled up a staggering deficit. It will run out of money unless it receives a $4-million infusion of cash.

When I talked with Hardy, he said he had been spending much of his time in search of financial support from Miami-Dade commissioners, other public officials and potential private donors.

"I would say by and large the conversations are going well, but there's not a concrete answer about where the money is going to come from, " he told me. "My guess is that within two months it will be figured out."

Nothing much will happen until the state Legislature deals with the property tax issue, now set to be addressed in a special session in June. Miami-Dade and other municipalities are holding off making any commitments while their major source of revenue is in limbo.

Things looked so dire for the center in March, Hardy threatened that it might have to be closed and the staff laid off for a month in the summer as a cost-saving measure. In a Miami Herald story, he described that as a "disaster plan" that would be done only as a last resort, but it was an attention-getter.

"Everybody agrees it would be madness to do that, " Hardy told me. "Nobody's going to let it happen."

Miami's new center has been one of the most star-crossed performing arts projects around. Its construction was delayed for years, and the final cost was three times more than planned. Now the center is proving to be much more expensive to run than was originally estimated.

Ticket sales have also been disappointing, but Hardy blames the deficit primarily on the unexpectedly high costs of security, maintenance and utilities.

"We misestimated what these things were going to cost, " he said. "The building is just costing much more to operate than we predicted it would. I think we can bring the costs down incrementally, but the more we analyze it, the more we see it's just going to be an expensive facility."

Carnival Center costs have been $15.40 per square foot, the Herald has reported. That's twice the average cost of 30 performing arts centers around the United States, and significantly more than others in Florida, such as Fort Lauderdale's Broward Center for the Performing Arts $11.13 per square foot, West Palm Beach's Kravis Center for the Performing Arts ($11.07) and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center ($10.40).

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The Miami center, designed by Cesar Pelli, is a grand complex. It consists of a matched pair of halls: the 2, 400-seat Ziff Ballet Opera House, whose users include Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet and Broadway shows; and the 2, 200-seat Knight Concert Hall, where the New World Symphony, ensembles presented by the Concert Association of Florida and pop music acts perform. There's also a 200-seat Studio Theater.

For the most part, South Florida performing arts organizations that rent the venue have enjoyed some success there. Florida Grand Opera's premiere of Anna Karenina played to a virtually full house, and other productions by the company, such as its season-opening Aida, have sold out. In a testament to the audience's diversity, opera supertitles in both English and Spanish are projected above the stage.

The New World Symphony, which has its own hall on Miami Beach, has played only a few concerts at the center, but its programs with superstar soloists Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming were hits. Miami City Ballet has drawn well enough that it plans to add more performances at the center next season.

The Broadway series, buoyed by a sold-out two-week run of Wicked in March, more than doubled its subscription base from what it had been at Jackie Gleason Theater on Miami Beach.

All this was not surprising. These organizations have well-established audiences that were eager to be in the glitzy new venue. What has been surprising is how poor ticket sales have been for the center's own presentations, which have been heavy on Latin pop and world music in an effort to appeal to South Florida's wildly eclectic demographic and ethnic mix.

For example, in most U.S. markets, the singers Albita, Petrona Martnez and Carmen Pars - from Cuba, Colombia and Spain, respectively - would be unknown. They are household names to many in multicultural Miami, but that still didn't translate into strong sales for their concert last October.

"We sold 800 or 900 tickets for these very popular artists, " Hardy said. "The first month we were doing only 30 percent attendance on average. I think what happened is that we came out with a whole new kind of programming that hadn't been done in Miami before and spent the first five or six months finding that audience."

Ticket sales have gotten better. Concerts in February by Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and the Miami husband-wife duo Willy Chirino and Lissette both did well. Still, overall attendance figures have missed projections by a long shot. In March, only 57 percent of available tickets were sold.

"We are not getting sufficient Hispanic attendance, " Parker Thomson, chairman of the trust that operates the center, told the Herald.

There have been other damaging issues, including turnover in the center's box office management and an ineffectual marketing campaign that generated little buzz about the first season outside South Florida.

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Nevertheless, I came away from my brief visit feeling optimistic about the center over the long term. If nothing else, it is just too big and expensive for the community to allow it to fail.

There are positive reasons, too. The Ziff Ballet Opera House is an attractive, comfortable venue with good acoustics. Officials with the New World Symphony told me the sound also is good in the Knight Concert Hall (which did not have a performance when I was there).

But the main reason for optimism is Miami itself. For all the city's well-documented problems, it is an incredibly appealing place for the arts. It will take years, probably, but once the center figures out how to tap into the city's vibrancy and energy, it should be a success.

The challenge for the center will be keeping its act together until then.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.