Once heralded by Mayor Buddy Dyer as a “Triple Crown for Downtown” that would elevate Orlando, Fla., from its status as a “second-tier city,” the community’s $1 billion plan to build a new arena and performing arts center and renovate an outdoor stadium has suffered numerous blows, due to a faltering economy. The latest, just weeks after the opening of the events center, is the possible delay of the performing arts center.

blog post photo

Rendering courtesy Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Although the city has approved bond sales of $139 million, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC) has raised $88 million from private donors, and the city phased the project, there may not be enough money available to build the first 250,000-sq-ft phase of the performing arts center, estimated by the city in May at $130 million in construction costs.

Tim Ackert, project director for the City of Orlando Venues Program, explains that a lot of that money has been spent to purchase property and on architectural fees. The city also tore down a fire station and cleared a parking area to make way for the center. Ackert declined to say how much the city still has available to build the first phase, though he estimates the project would create 3,000 jobs during three years of construction.

“This is a careful period of time, and we all agreed to play it close to the chest until we have a full and complete story,” Ackert says.

Cassandra Lafser, spokesperson for the mayor, said there is $250 million available to apply to the first stage of the project, with two of the three theaters. Still, she adds that a funding gap is anticipated. Current expenses cover acquisition, design, engineering and entitlements for the full project, as well as permit fees, construction costs and a contingency on the first two-theater phase.

Balfour Beatty Construction, the PAC and Hines, DPAC’s program development partner, are reviewing hundreds of bids received and will interview the low bidders. The team broke the project into about 85 bid packages and received at least two bids for each and, typically, six to seven bids on every package. Then the city will negotiate a construction price with Balfour Beatty.

“I think we got good representative bids for the market, and then we add fees and general conditions and contingencies for the construction manager to come up with a GMP,” Ackert says. “The money dedicated to construction is coming from the city, and we are in the process of looking at the bottom line GMP versus the budget. We won’t know that for a couple of weeks.”

Balfour Beatty asked bidders for value engineering ideas and for deductive alternates, in which portions of the scope could be deferred or eliminated. Ackert says in the worst case, the city would look for outside funding.

Balfour Beatty and DPAC did not return requests for more information.

During the heady days of 2006, with tax dollars flowing into government coffers, venue supporters filled Orange County board chambers with rallying cries to build all three and build them now. Then the nation, and Central Florida along with it, plunged into recession, forcing the city to revise its venue plans—starting work on the $480-million events center, delaying the $450-million performing arts center, and scaling back $175 million in renovations at the 1930s-era Citrus Bowl to provide $6 million in basic upgrades and a new $2 million artificial turf field.

We should know in the weeks to come if enough money is available for the first phase of the new performing arts center and if the political will exists to move forward with the mayor’s vision for the future or what backlash might exist for spending so much money and then having nothing to show for it, except a vacant fenced parcel across from city hall.