Surprise! We've got a venue problem in Charleston

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What's in This Story: Here, you'll find news and analysis of the American Theater, the Charleston Ballet Theatre, Redux Contemporary Art, the Village Playhouse, PURE Theatre, Mt. Pleasant's talk about building a performing arts center, and Spoleto's renting of the Old Trolley Barn. This is part of an occasional series I'll write on Charleston's fascinating, and no doubt vexing, venue problem. —JS

The Ongoing Venue Problem

This time, Mt. Pleasant debates an arts center vs. a dog park

When PURE Theatre left its home on East Bay Street last year, it triggered a resurgance of anxiety about the two major problems that have plagued performing arts groups in Charleston for years.

The first problem: There aren't enough venues. The second: The ones we have are disappearing faster than new ones can replace them.

The Riviera Theatre is a corporate conference space. The Garden Theatre is an Urban Outfitters. A former Masonic temple near Wentworth and King streets, that was once a theater and a ballet studio (and that has gone unused for a decade), is being turned into condos. As for PURE's former home? Lofts, galleries, restaurants, and retail space are in the offing for the 125-year-old Cigar Factory.

Fueling anxiety was a Jan. 19 profile in The Post and Courier of Rodney Lee Rogers, PURE's co-founder, that reported PURE was moving to take up residence at the Old Naval Yard at Noisette in North Chuck.

The report was only slightly wrong. PURE is indeed considering a proposal made by the Noisette Co., but it has made no commitment yet. Even so, the possibility of PURE's move north inspired some to voice concern. "I expect we'll see a lot of arts-related endeavors settling around the Old Naval Yard," said Dan Conover on City Paper's arts blog. "If Charleston wants to keep its artists, it's going to have to work to keep them. Otherwise they'll move north."

Going to the dogs

In early February, Kruger Smith, mayor pro-tem of Mt. Pleasant, said a performing arts center would be ideal for Waterfront Memorial Park, a $14 million project planned for 22 acres on the Cooper River. Initially, town leaders proposed a dog park, but later hyped the idea of an arts center.

Some were angered by the notion, but Smith told me the issue isn't an arts center versus a dog park; the issue is the value of the property: too valuable, he said, for a dog park, but perhaps ideal for something like an arts center or some other facility.

Thus far, it's well-intentioned talk.

Meanwhile, the Village Playhouse is not waiting for town council to take action. In the next two weeks, the company plans to launch a capital campaign to build a new venue on an open lot near its current location on Coleman Boulevard.

Keely Enright, artistic director, said plans are still in their infancy, but she hopes to build a roughly 7,200-square-foot venue with about 250 seats in under two years.

The King (Street) of condos

Some time between 2011 and 2013, a real estate company called PrimeSouth Group will renovate a half-block area between King and St. Philip streets and Morris and Radcliffe streets, where the Charleston Ballet Theatre and Redux Contemporary Art Center are located.

Each has a lease with provisions that could allow them to stay as long as 2010. But after renovations are complete, they would pay rent that's far more than they currently pay. Raising enough money is an open question. CBT says it's going nowhere. Redux is looking for a new space.

Across the street is Patrick Properties, a company that owns the historic William Aiken House, Fish Restaurant, and Lowndes Grove, a former plantation. It also owns the American Theater, an old movie palace that now hosts Charleston Stage, while its permanent digs, the Dock Street Theatre, gets a $20 million redo and reopens in 2010.

The American, however, probably won't host many performing arts in the future.

Its proscenium theater will be renovated to return the current stadium seating back to its original floor plan. It will then specialize in weddings, a big revenue generator for the small historic preservation company.

According to Celeste Hunt Patrick, company owner and member of Charleston Stage's board of trustees, the American has never made much money as a theater. Patrick Properties needs more options. A retooled American will complement the company's other properties. Renovations, Patrick told me, will likely begin this summer. The stage will remain, as will the projection room. The second theater will stay.

But can theater companies use it?

Patrick said its main funtion will be weddings and corporate events. She added that Charleston Stage will not be homeless: Until it can return to the Dock Street, the theater company will split its time between the Sottile Theater and the newly renovated Memminger Auditorium.

Spoleto and the Trolley Barn

Spoleto Festival USA spent $6 million renovating the Memminger. But one would surmise it was forced to: Spoleto's international reputation depends on producing innovative works in dynamic spaces.

The Garden Theatre was one such venue. When it became a retail clothing shop, it was a major loss to Spoleto and Nigel Redden.

"We waited and waited and waited for someone to take it over, but no one did," said the executive director of Spoleto Festival USA. "It's an ongoing regret of mine."

The same thing could have happened to the Memminger. Spoleto has used it since 2000, but did not renovate the old building, because, as Redden said, Spoleto is in the festival business, not the building management business. Even so, Spoleto needs venues. As time passed, no one came forward. Redden feared losing it the way he did the Garden Theatre. "We had to take the lead in that change," Redden said.

Which brings us to the Old Trolley Barn.

Spoleto has asked City Council to rent the historic Meeting Street structure as a scene shop. The festival needs a ceiling that's high enough to accommodate the building of a 26-foot tall Buddha, part of a musical play called Monkey: Journey to the West.

City planners have thought about what's best for the Old Trolley Barn: a recreation center, a museum, or an arts center. Given the need for venues and a centralized location in Charleston, the arts center idea has energized the arts community. So far, though, the city has acted slowly, due to political considerations and the expense of restoring it. But what if Spoleto took over it? How would that change the dynamics of the venue problem in Charleston?

When asked if Spoleto had its sights on the Old Trolley Barn, Redden didn't say yes but didn't say no. He said renting the barn was a one-shot deal. Yet he reminded me the Memminger also began that way.

"Audiences want variety in venues," Redden said. "Spoleto doesn't want to preempt the city's process. But we're open to working with the city and have said that we have many ideas for the space.

"This is all pre-mature," he said. "We still have to raise money. We're not in the real estate business, but we have venue needs. And it is a fascinating building."

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