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Tulsa PAC: 'We need to start having these conversations' on venue's future, CEO says

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To the casual visitor, the Tulsa Performing Arts Center appears to be handling its business as usual.

With the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions that forced the facility to close completely for months, then operate on a severely limited scale, the four main performance areas of the PAC are once again hosting everything from Broadway touring productions and symphony concerts to local theater shows and chamber music performances.

But all it takes is a glimpse behind the curtains to reveal that the 45-year-old venue is feeling — and showing — its age, and the wear and tear of some 250,000 visitors attending more than 500 events presented here each year.

The City of Tulsa, which owns the facility, recently approved a request from the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust, the nonprofit organization that manages the day-to-day operations of the venue, for $5.5 million from the $43.9 million the city received as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

The act was created to help individuals, businesses and civic organizations with funds to help boost the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money will be used to address 32 building improvements and deferred maintenance projects that needed immediate attention in order for the facility to continue operations for the next three to five years.

However, Mark Frie, CEO of the Tulsa PAC, said during his presentation to the city council in April that these immediate issues are in essence only a temporary fix, and that the only way for the venue to survive would be a drastic remodel, or the construction of an entirely new performing arts venue.

“Within a 10-minute walk from here, you can go to a number of world-class venues and attractions we have in the city today — the BOK Center, the Bob Dylan Center, the OKPOP Museum that will be opening soon,” Frie said. “And if you look at PACs in similar cities, such as Kansas City, Nashville, Oklahoma City, we simply can’t compete.

“If I was a promoter looking at bringing a show to one location in Oklahoma, and I looked at the Tulsa PAC and the Civic Center Music Hall in Oklahoma City, I would probably take my show to Oklahoma City,” he said. “I don’t like to say that, because I love Tulsa and I love this facility. But to be honest, the Tulsa PAC does not look like a welcoming place.”

Accessibility issues

The Tulsa PAC was built as part of a massive downtown development project in the mid-1970s that included the BOK Tower; both were designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, best known for the original World Trade Center towers in New York City. Yamasaki designed the PAC in the Brutalist style, with a lot of concrete and few decorative flourishes.

The Tulsa PAC was the only performing arts venue Yamasaki designed in his career, and the plan to have four performance venues contained within the relatively small footprint at the corner of Third Street and Cincinnati Avenue is one reason for the maze-like quality of the venue’s backstage area.

It was also built before the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required public buildings to provide accommodations for those with physical challenges.

Frie said the PAC was “grandfathered in” when the ADA became law, and while efforts were made to install such things as ramps, special seating areas and restroom facilities, much still needs to be done to help make the facility truly accessible.

For example, staff members and frequent users of the PAC refer to the angled walkway that leads from the Stage Door entrance on Second Street to the backstage area as the “Ramp of Death.”

“Our industry is pushing for more diversity, and we’re going to have more and more performers with physical challenges, and we need to accommodate them,” Frie said. “But that ramp is scary for everyone. I have a lot of sympathy for the cellists and bass players with the symphony, having to navigate our backstage area with their instruments.”

Frie said the PAC Trust originally included ADA upgrades in its request, but the amount needed to cover the costs of the renovations approached $15 million.

“It made sense to divide the projects up, and approach the city with a request that would cover bringing certain aspects up to industry standards, and addressing some immediate safety issues,” Frie said.

He said the PAC Trust also approached the Tulsa County Commission, which also received American Rescue Plan funds, about helping to fund the ADA upgrades, but the commission declined to hear the proposal.

Among these projects that are scheduled to be addressed are replacing the house lights in the Chapman, Williams and Doenges theaters, which are so old that replacement parts aren’t available; upgrading the building’s heating, air-conditioning and hot water systems, which are also outdated; and repairing the crumbling concrete stairs on the building’s west side.

Safety concerns

Most of the things that need attention are rarely seen by those attending performances at the PAC, but which are vital for safety concerns as well as helping to make the PAC able to deal with the technological demands of contemporary stagecraft.

This includes upgrading all fire curtains in the theaters to industry standards, upgrading the rope winches used to raise and lower scenery in the Chapman theater, reinforcing the wall separating the orchestra pit in the Chapman from the audience, replacing exterior doors that are 25 years out of date and fixing the sewer line that has had repeated problems with breaking and leaking.

“Sewer lines are supposed to angle down, but the way the land here has settled, our sewer starts down, then angles up,” Frie said. “It’s caused all sorts of problems over the years. We also have an HVAC system that uses steam heat and chilled water — there are places that look like you’re in a battleship, because of all the pipes and valves.”

One of those valves burst in January 2021, causing minor flooding in the lower-level theaters.

Frie said most of these improvements can be done without greatly disrupting the PAC’s regular operations.

“Some will take some careful scheduling, such as repairing the concrete in our loading dock,” Frie said.

But the PAC’s loading dock is also a reason why a brand-new performing arts center may soon be seen as a necessity. The PAC has a single loading dock, located at the top of a curved ramp on the building’s west side.

“We can only load or unload one truck at a time,” Frie said. “This summer, we’re going to have (the Disney musical) ‘Frozen’ here, and that show fills 20 semi-trucks. We also have only one freight elevator, so if we’re trying to load a show like ‘Frozen’ out, and the ballet or Theatre Tulsa is trying to load their next production in, the logistics are kind of a nightmare.”

Planning for the future

Frie gives credit to the PAC staff and the facility’s user groups that over the years have worked to overcome the challenges of putting on shows in the PAC. But the time is coming when the city will need to make a commitment to provide Tulsa’s performing arts companies a world-class facility.

“We need to start having these conversations,” Frie said. “Our goal is to raise half of the money needed for a new performing arts center privately. We have a development team in place, and we’ve had some positive response from major donors.”

A new performing arts center is estimated to cost upwards of $300 million. Frie said one solution to creating a new center would be first to construct a medium-sized, 1,200- to 1,400-seat theater at a new location. The current PAC could continue operations until this phase of the project was completed.

“A medium-sized theater is something the major companies have wanted for years,” Frie said. “And it would allow us to keep operating during construction, whereas a full remodel of the present facility would require us to shut down for months, even years.

“And that could be devastating,” he said. “The Broadway series accounts for 80 percent of our earned revenue. And most of our revenue goes to fund programs, whether it’s our events like the Imagination Series, the Orbit Initiative, the Discovery Awards or for facility grants that make it more affordable for local groups to use the PAC. We’ve never had any sort of revenue reserve we can tap for things like this.”

On the other hand, Frie said, the economic impact of the arts in Tulsa is undeniable. The most recent study by Americans for the Arts determined that Tulsa-area nonprofit arts and culture organizations had an economic impact of nearly $229 million for the region’s economy in 2021, supporting more than 7,800 full-time jobs and generating $21 million in tax revenue.

“Tulsa has always shown that the arts are important,” Frie said. “Investing in the sort of world-class facility that the Tulsa performing arts company deserves is an investment that will certainly pay off.

“If we don’t step up our game,” he said, “I’m not sure how long we can continue to be the home for the performing arts in Tulsa.”

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"If we don't step up our game, I'm not sure how long we can continue to be the home for the performing arts in Tulsa."

Mark Frie 

Tulsa Performing Arts Center CEO

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