That mysterious, and thrilling, email about the so-called Promenade Arts District



The emotions of Charleston artists were whipped into an airy froth Tuesday by a strongly worded email from the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. The message informed recipients of an "exciting development on the horizon," something called "an Arts District in downtown Charleston."

It said that the "arts district" was "currently designed to include":

· An outdoor amphitheatre (seating capacity of 10,000)

· An indoor concert / performance hall (seating capacity of 2,500-3,000)

· An indoor theatre / performance hall (seating capacity of 500)

· Arts office space

· Rehearsal space

· Arts production incubating space

· Gallery space

· Retail space

· High end housing units

· A Ritz-Carlton Hotel

· Potential for other types of business and development

The email, which was sent Tuesday at 11:51 AM to the listserv of the Cultural Affairs Office, then asked readers to attend workshops, or "charettes," scheduled for later that day and for Wednesday.

The workshops were hosted by the Ginn Co., a real estate firm that specializes in resorts. It had invited the public to weigh in on the company's partnership with the city's Department of Planning, Preservation, and Economic Innovation, to develop the former Charleston County landfill along the Cooper River (see the handy graphic to the left courtesy of The Post and Courier), some 200 acres off Morrison Drive and U.S. Hwy 17 (not far, in fact, from the offices of Charleston City Paper).

The development is being called Promenade and will look like most other developments, featuring for the most part residential housing, like condos and townhouses. The Ginn Co. is required by the city of Charleston to host these charettes to give the communities around the development a chance to voice their concerns, needs, and ideas.

The email announcing the "exciting development," which the anonymous author from the city's Office of Cultural Affairs called "The Promenade Arts District," was titled "Attention All Artists, Arts Organizations, and Patrons of the Arts." It was released the day after the first installment of a three-day series of workshops.

On Monday, no artists were in attendance. But on Tuesday and Wednesday, by all accounts, about two-thirds of the 100-plus members of the audience represented Charleston's arts community.

Anyone paying attention knows we have a venue problem. There are more artists than there are venues for them to do what they do. This is especially true among performing artists — PURE Theatre was pushed out of the Cigar Factory after five years, the American Theater will be refitted to be a "corporate space," Buxton's East Bay Theatre shut down in December, just to name a few. It's also a serious concern among visual artists, as illustrated by the recent efforts of the Charleston Arts Coalition to rally support for the idea of a "People's Arts Center."

So you better believe this email, and its "exciting" news, came as quite a shock.

Funny thing is, though, according to a P&C report Thursday, the Ginn Co. spokesperson, Will Bagwell, had never heard of anything called "The Promenade Arts District."

Hmm. So let's recap.

The Office of Cultural Affairs sends out an email Tuesday urging recipients to show support for an "exciting development" by the Ginn Co. called "The Promenade Arts District," but once the 75 or so representatives of the arts community get there, they learn that the Ginn Co. has never heard of such a thing.

Also: During the first charette, no artists show up. But the second and third charettes (Tuesday and Wednesday) are crushed with eager, passionate, and confused artists.

What's going on?

My task yesterday was to find out.

First, I called Ana Emelianoff, spokesperson for the city's Planning, Preservation, and Economic Innovation office. She's cited on the mystery email. She told me the email was a mistake, that the Office of Cultural Affairs released it believing that the Ginn Co. was the "planning stages" of developing the 200-acre property, rather than in the "brainstorming stages."

But the email is explicit. It does not indicate that a 10,000-seat amphitheater is being considered. It says it's "current designed to include" it.

Such a facility would be good for the Office of Cultural Affairs (it would be instrumental in designing and operating it). Therefore speculation abounded that the city office, directed by Ellen Dressler Moryl, the person who founded Piccolo Spoleto, had intentionally leaked an internal document not intended for public eyes in order to whip up interest.

The timing of the email also fueled speculation, as did the result of the email.

It wasn't sent Monday. It was sent Tuesday.

There were no artists Monday. But there was a boatload Tuesday and Wednesday.

If this were an unintentional clerical error or a crafty leak, the outcome is the same, said Emily Wilhoit, director of the League of Charleston Theatres. She said that Will Bagwell, project manager for the Ginn Co., was "bombarded by arts people."

"Until that point, there was no talk about the arts," Wilhoit told me. "After that, he knows what we need. The newspaper and TV news stations took an interest in our concerns. I'm starting to think it was the smartest thing Ellen has ever done."

Charettes are meant to inform real estate developers of a community's needs. What's discussed in those meetings, in theory anyway, is supposed to be taken into account as developers head into the planning stages. If the arts community had not been present during the charettes Tuesday and Wednesday, the Ginn Co. could not have known about its needs, such as more venues and more affordable creative space.

"If they want to be included, then they need to include themselves," said a city official familiar with its strategic planning process but who did not want to be identified. "Before the email, they didn't include themselves, because they didn't know what was at stake."

Will Bagwell told me that the email was a surprise to him. He added that the amphitheater is likely to happen, but that everything else on the list, including the 2,500-3,000-seat indoor theater, was possible.

Stressing the tentative nature of these beginning phases, he said that a "performing arts component," if that's what the company decides to do, might be appropriate for touring Broadway shows, musical performances, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto events. Many questions remain, however, including what form the "component" might take: a theater, amphitheater, indoor, outdoor, etc.

The construction of a "performing arts component" would be outsourced to an Atlanta-based firm that specializes in such projects. He could not provide me with the name of the company, because of a nondisclosure agreement with it. Bagwell said that the Office of Cultural Affairs introduced him to the company, the result, he said, of the city's discussions with the firm for the past "two to three years."

"Obviously someone at the city has a wish-list," he said.

Though the email was constructed to get artists out to the charettes, "it was not a huge deal," he said. "It was good that artists got into the mix, to put their two cents in."

Finally, I talked to Ellen Dressler Moryl late yesterday.

She was pretty plain about it all. She said that the email was not a mistake, but a calculated move to drive interest among artists so they would put their two cents in.

No artists came Monday, she said. Something had to do done. So she told a staffer to take some of the possibilities discussed on Monday, including the idea of an "arts district," and send an email to artists telling them what's going on.

"It worked," she said. "Not a single artist came Monday. Their voices needed to be heard."

When told that the Department of Planning, Preservation, and Economic Innovation had already said publicly, to me, and privately, to Will Bagwell, that the email had been a mistake, Moryl appeared surprised.

She then said the wording of the email was "wrong" and "too strong." It should have indicated that the list of performing arts features were things being considered during the brainstorming stages, not things being planned and ready to go.

"That was our mistake," she said. "I'll take the wrap rap for that."

Even so, the result is the same. Emily Wilhoit, of the League of Charleston Theatres, is compiling a list of needs to send to Moryl's office. The Ginn Co. will then consider that list as it hammers out the final details for the property in the months ahead.

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