Should Auburn be named the winner of a $10 million state grant competition at the end of June, two of the six projects that stand to gain are downtown performing arts spaces.
Both the Auburn Schine Theater and a possible performing arts center in the State Street Mall were identified by the city May 31 as projects included in its grant application. The $10 million was made available through the state's Downtown Revitalization Initiative program, and Auburn is up against Oswego, Cortland and Fulton in the central New York division of the grant competition.
Specifically, the city proposed to the state the rehabilitation of the Schine's marquee and facade, abatement of its asbestos and restoration of its 2,100-square-foot inner lobby. The application makes no mention of the 1938 John Eberson theater's 1,600-seat auditorium.
The State Street project, meanwhile, falls under a broader proposal for the Creative Corridor area's development. A 14,000-square-foot, two- or three-story mixed-use building would adjoin a 7,500-square-foot outdoor public space on the vacant 1-7 State St. lot, the application says.
Taken on its face, Auburn's grant application would appear to suggest the city is prepared to commit resources to the realization of both the Schine and State Street projects — two downtown venues with potentially overlapping artistic functions and square footage that would dwarf the area's lone already-existing venue, Auburn Public Theater.
AUBURN — Auburn officials believe the city has a strong chance at winning the $10 million pr…
However, due to the nature of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative program and its grant application process, that's not quite the case. Several officials and stakeholders told The Citizen that the application represents possibilities, not plans — and that goes for both the Schine and State Street projects.
Auburn City Councilor Jimmy Giannettino, a member of the group that prepared the application, said the city was told the state sought to fund projects "ripe" for development with the grant.
Both the Schine and State Street projects fit that description, Giannettino said. The Cayuga County Arts Council has roadmapped the Schine's restoration for 20 years. And the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival drew up plans for a State Street theater, the 300-seat Schwartz Family Performing Arts Center, before shelving them in 2014 while citing litigation from property neighbor Joseph Camardo.
Because of their history, Giannettino said, both projects also enjoy public support. He noted that several community members addressed Auburn City Council earlier this year to plead for the Schine's restoration. Though the city doesn't own the theater — the arts council does — Auburn could help the group along via the state grant. City officials said May 31 the money could function as incentive for the arts council to shore up its restoration efforts.
Giannettino said the city also hears frequently from citizens who want to see something occupy the 1-7 State St. lot where the Schwartz was to be built. The future of the former Kalet's department store site was the subject of a September public forum, and the city voted in March to accept proposals from consulting agencies to study its best use.
That combination of readiness and popularity made both the Schine and State Street projects natural candidates for the grant application, Giannettino said. But, he continued, their presence on the application doesn't mean Auburn has earmarked the money for them.
"The important thing to realize is that it's all conceptual," he said. "(If Auburn wins the grant) the first thing the state's going to do is assign a developer to look at our plan and provide guidance."
City of Auburn Director of Capital Projects and Grants Christina Selvek said the direction of the Creative Corridor project would also depend on the results of the best use study of the 1-7 State St. space. And a performing arts center may not be its best use, she said. Though the city referred to the project as a "shared use public performing arts center" in its May 31 presentation, Selvek said June 13 that "it was premature to identify any potential use."
Founders Day 2014 was a busy day at the Auburn Schine Theater.
Regardless, if the Schine and State Street projects remain on the table as recipients of state funding — and if the latter takes a functional shape similar to that of the former — a question of sustainability emerges. Could the two spaces co-exist, or would they self-cannibalize?
Feasibility studies of each project have been done. The Cayuga County Arts Council's vision for the Schine includes not only performing arts, but with features like removable seating, also weddings and banquets. The council had also planned to offer local arts organizations permanent residence at the theater's adjacent Lincoln South building, but that building's purchase by another entity earlier this year all but scuttled those plans.
Council board President Jim Loperfido acknowledged in August that the Schine's last study, in 2001, needed to be updated to account for the opening of Auburn Public Theater in 2005. He said in February that the council was reviewing its feasibility strategy, but did not respond to recent requests for comment.
The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, meanwhile, has veered from the course laid out by its 2008 feasibility study from the Institute for Outdoor Drama. Though the study said a downtown theater of the Schwartz's size could work in concert with Owasco's Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and Auburn Public Theater, festival Producing Artistic Director Brett Smock said last week that the festival's current focus is solidifying its financial plan at its existing venues: the playhouse, Theater Mack and the Nazareth College Arts Center in Rochester.
"When it is appropriate for us to expand and consider a new venue, we will do so," Smock said.
Both the council and the festival's feasibility studies share a common oversight, though: Neither accounts for the other. Neither asks whether it could work while the other competes for similar programming, for similar audiences. If Auburn wins the $10 million grant for an application that includes both the Schine and State Street projects, though, that's a question that will quite possibly get asked.
Chicago-based architect Daniel P. Coffey's 1993 feasibility study of the Schine may provide a starting point for an answer. (The 2001 study was not made available to The Citizen.)
(In September, The Citizen published a special report on the current status of the Cayuga Co…
Coffey suggested in the study that a restored Schine retain none other than the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse as its major tenant — a prospect that'd now be dimmed by not only the construction of a State Street performing arts center tailored to the festival's needs, but also by Smock's repeated statements that the festival has no plans to program at the Schine. Despite those statements, though, Loperfido expressed to The Citizen in August and February a hope that the festival will "(come) to their senses" and decide to produce shows at the Schine.
Coffey also suggested that a restored Schine reduce its seat count from about 1,600 to 612, based on both Merry-Go-Round's average audience size and Cayuga County's population at the time. A State Street performing arts center in the Schwartz's seat count range — not to mention Auburn Public Theater — may therefore shrink the niche Coffey saw the restored Schine fulfilling. So may the fact that Cayuga County's population has since dipped almost 5 percent.
Coffey could not be reached for comment. The implications of his 23-year-old study aside, Auburn officials remain optimistic about the potential for not one, but two more performing arts spaces downtown.
"The additional space would allow us to bring it to the next level," he said of the theater and festival's programming.
Though Selvek said the city would talk with the festival in the event it secures the grant, she was more reserved in her appraisal of the two projects' collective sustainability. Like Giannettino, she stressed the involvement of a developer in strategizing any potential investment — in turning Auburn's application for it, Schine and State Street included, from possibilities into plans.
"We're on the brink of really great things downtown, and this would be the good kick we need," Selvek said. "We're hoping they all make it, but maybe they won't."