Lyric repairs strike expensive chord

mku@herald-leader.comFebruary 15, 2009 

For more than 10 years, East End residents have dreamed of reopening the Lyric Theatre, the former entertainment hub for Lexington's black community.

That hope could come true next year, but at a cost of more than $800,000 a year to the city.

On Tuesday, the Urban County Council is being asked to move forward with a $6 million construction project to renovate the Lyric, which has sat vacant since 1963.

If the council approves the proposal, construction would start in May or June, said Susan Hill of Tate Hill Jacobs Architects.

Since construction is expected to take a year, the Lyric wouldn't be completed until well after a Jan. 27, 2010, deadline stipulated in a legal agreement between the city and state. That agreement also calls for a $500-a-day fine until the project is finished.

And, once the theater is operational, it won't be self-sustaining, according to a newly released business plan for the facility. The city will be expected to provide more than $300,000 a year to operate and maintain the Lyric.

Although the city would prefer that its partner agencies be self-sustaining, Lexington "has a long history of either owning arts and cultural facilities or in some way subsidizing either the operating expenses with maintenance, utility and insurance costs," said Shaye Rabold, Mayor Jim Newberry's chief of staff.

"Communities that have a lot to offer within their arts and cultural communities are ones that are much more prosperous and have higher-paying jobs," Rabold said. "We are happy to support the arts."

Plans call for more than doubling the size of the Lyric from its existing 13,000 square feet to 29,000 square feet. When completed, it will have a 588-seat theater, multipurpose space and an African-American history museum.

The city is required to renovate the Lyric as part of a 1997 settlement agreement with the state, which had sued the city for failing to build a promised cultural center downtown. The settlement required the city to spend millions on a number of cultural projects, including the Lyric, which was to be turned into an African-American cultural center.

The business plan for the Lyric estimates that the facility will cost $628,000 to operate during a "stable year," which is assumed to be the third year after opening.

The projected income during a stable year is estimated to be $470,674, which would leave an annual operating shortfall of about $157,000 for the city to pay.

With the $188,000 in building maintenance fees that the city is also expected to supply, the projected city contribution to operate the Lyric in a stable year is $345,000. That doesn't include the $470,000 a year in debt service the city must pay for the Lyric's renovation, said Urban County Councilman Ed Lane.

Still, the task force that developed the Lyric's renovation plans does not expect a deficit in operating revenues once the Lyric is fully established, said Juanita Betz Peterson, chairwoman of the group.

"We're not saying that we're going to come in with a deficit," she said. "We're saying if there is a deficit, it will probably be in that range."

There will be fund-raising efforts, and other options, such as endowments, membership opportunities and grants, will be explored to help cover the operating costs, Peterson said.

Councilman Lane, who said he supports the city's 1997 commitment to restore the Lyric, is concerned about spending $6 million to renovate the building during the recession. The city faces a projected $27 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year.

Given the economy, the state might be willing to give the city more time to develop a more cost-effective plan for the Lyric, Lane said.

The Lyric needs to be closer to self-sustaining, and the council should consider scaling down the expansion or completing it in phases, Lane said.

Peterson said breaking the project into phases isn't an option.

The task force decided it would be best to renovate the Lyric to be used for multiple purposes, including a museum, theater and performance space, Peterson said.

If the Lyric is redeveloped solely as an African-American museum, "that alone could not be viable or sustain that building," Peterson said. "With multiple purposes you could sustain that facility."

It's expected that the Lyric will be rented by commercial musical artists and local arts organizations that need performance space.

It will serve a niche in the community, Peterson said. At 588 seats, the size will be attractive to a number of promoters and organizations, she said.

The Lyric, at the corner of East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane, was once a bustling black entertainment hub that saw performances from Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and other top artists.

The existing structure will be restored as a theater. The stage will be expanded, but the theater's original sloped floor will remain. Also, the Lyric's original marquee and terrazzo flooring will be restored.

The addition will include an African-American history museum, support spaces for the theater and multi-purpose space, which could be used for meetings, poetry performances or dance events. There will also be a courtyard.

Reach Michelle Ku at (859) 231-1335 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1335.

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