Sunday, January 25, 2004

Funding the unique arts school


Some of Cincinnati's most recognizable names are behind a push to raise $20 million to make Cincinnati's performing arts school even more of a talent factory. The project is about much more than a $52 million one-of-a-kind school. It would give a huge boost to historic Over-the-Rhine. But it needs strong backing from City Hall, the new public/private Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) and others to reap maximum benefits from this project.

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra Maestro Erich Kunzel saw in 1996 that the School for the Creative and Performing Arts and Music Hall both could be strengthened by putting the two side by side. Students could interact with stars who perform at Music Hall. Music Hall would be assured next-generation performers and audiences, and the "new kid on the block" would add to the security of the neighborhood. The school board added another masterstroke, combining SCPA with Schiel, an arts primary school. The board committed $26 million, conditioned on Kunzel's volunteer group raising a matching $26 million. They've raised $8.275 million so far, and arts fund-raiser John Zurick hopes to raise another $20 million by June 15.

That deadline is dictated by Cincinnati Public Schools' building plan, financed by last May's $480 million bond levy. A successful fund-raising would keep the arts school in CPS' phase two construction line-up, enabling it to open in 2007.

Cincinnati's development consultant John Alschuler targeted the Washington Park area around Music Hall for revitalization. He sees rehabbed housing, new retail, restaurants and multiple destinations around the park. The new arts school would face both Central Parkway and Elm Street, across from the park.

"We've had terrific support from private donors and the corporate sector - Procter & Gamble, Fifth Third Bank, Western Southern, Union Central, Scripps," said William Knodel, a retired Procter executive and volunteer president of the arts school group. They've been awarded a $1 million federal grant to combine the two schools, recruit students from Over-the-Rhine and make it a learning center for the entire community. SCPA is already one of CPS' most diverse schools. Knodel expects the fund drive will pick up now that the school bond levy has passed and partnership agreements have been signed. CPS will run and maintain the school.

The design includes an underground garage and a secure second-level open-air play area. The group is confident it will be safe, but looks to the city to upgrade security for others, including a new Washington Park Elementary nearby. The arts school's budget doesn't include cost of the garage that can also serve Music Hall. Knodel has asked the city, 3CDC and the Port Authority for help on financing strategy. The school is that rare project with multiple returns on investment. It's a big-time production that deserves not just applause but public and private "angels" backing it to the max.

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