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September 30, 2014

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Smith Center won’t be cheap

A look at the development of Las Vegas' 61 acres over the years

1986 - Las Vegas establishes a Downtown Redevelopment Agency, which targets the Union Pacific Railroad yard behind Union Plaza.

October 1988 - Union Pacific announces it will move its downtown rail yard, paving the way for the city to acquire the land seven years later. The first of several artists' conceptions, depicting a string of towering hotel-casinos

November 1996 - Polyphase Sports and Entertainment, a group of Dallas investors, plans to build a $750 million, 110,000-seat domed stadium on the site.

August 1997 - A lawsuit is filed in federal court in Las Vegas accusing Polyphase of artificially inflating its stock to guarantee a stadium loan.

April 1998 - With the stadium plans in limbo, the city leans toward development of a $120 million events center, a performing arts district and restaurants on the site.

July 1998 - Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc. acquires the site for $47.5 million.

July 1999 - Gaming mogul Steve Wynn suggests a sports arena and a performing arts center.

January 2000 - Mayor Oscar Goodman, in his first State of the City address, calls a downtown arena and performing arts center an integral piece of his revitalization plans for the city.

October 2000 - The City Council acquires the land on a swap with Lehman Bros.

July 2001 - Southwest Sports of Dallas pushes for a sports stadium financed by tax dollars.

October 2002 - Southwest Sports and the city fail to reach an agreement. Goodman meets with representatives of the Cleveland Clinic to build an academic medical center on the site.

January 2003 - The city hires consultants to draw up a plan for an "urban village" - high density high-rise residential units atop stores. The project is called "Parkway Center."

September 2003 - The City Council approves the Parkway Center plan and estimates the initial cost of developing streets and other infrastructure at $23.1 million.

April 2004 - Retiring Boyd Gaming president Don Snyder announces that he will establish a capital campaign to raise $400 million to build the performing arts center.

May 2004 - The project is renamed Union Park, paying homage to its origins as a rail yard.

July 2004 - The Cleveland Clinic rejects the city's offer.

August 2004 - A consultant's report validates what arts supporters have said for years - the city needs a performing arts center.

February 2005 - The Clark County Commission unanimously approves a 2 percent tax hike on car rentals to help build the performing arts center.

March 2005 - The center is renamed the Fred W. and Mary B. Smith Center for the Performing Arts. ... Architect Frank Gehry is named to design the Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Center.

October 2005 - Negotiations break down with Related Cos., which says it cannot meet a demand to begin two residential skyscrapers and a towering office building. ... A new city hall and a hotel-casino also are considered for the site.

December 2005 - Former Hughes Corp. president Dan Van Epp picked to oversee the project.

May 2006 - City officials decide not to build a new City Hall on the site. ... Newland Communities releases a plan for offices and shops, residential units, three hotels and a casino. Potential value: $3 billion to $5 billion.

June 2006 - Architect David M. Schwarz is selected to design the performing arts center.

It's not going to be cheap to build a house for culture for Las Vegas.

Supporters figure it will take between $125 million and $175 million - much of that from private donations and a car rental tax - for the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. They optimistically talk about raising $400 million to build - and sustain - the center.

Despite the hefty price tag, the center's boosters say the Las Vegas Valley - with 1.7 million - can no longer afford to not have a world-class performing arts center.

"This will be the most important building built in our generation," says Don Snyder, chairman of the Las Vegas Performing Arts Center Foundation. "The performing arts center will be the heart of the 61 acres," referring to the Union Park redevelopment of the former railyard near downtown Las Vegas.

Snyder, a former banker and ex-president of Boyd Gaming, says he isn't underestimating the herculean task of breaking ground on Smith Center by spring 2008 and finishing it by 2010.

"Today's construction costs are out of control, and who knows what will happen in the next few years," Snyder says. "What we definitely will not do is compromise quality."

Backers say they've learned valuable lessons from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Miami Performing Arts Center and hope to avoid the costly delays that plagued those projects.

"We have to plan well. We have to decide beforehand exactly what we want so that we can bring the project in on time and on budget," says Myron Martin, president of the foundation. "We are planning for an elegant structure that will stand 200 years."

The project undoubtedly will face financial challenges during construction, says Susan Boskoff, executive director of the Nevada Arts Council.

"Building buildings is not an exact science," she says. "There are always change orders and always cost overruns. Every building exceeds its original budget.

"I just hope the construction costs do not dash their efforts. Such a facility in Las Vegas is long overdue."

Both Martin and Snyder say the project may have to be built in phases because of unpredictable construction costs.

Here's where the foundation officials expect to get the money for the project:

The cost of running the facility remains a question, Martin and Snyder agree.

But UNLV officials, who run their own performing arts facilities, say the Smith Center will have to clear some interesting hurdles.

"They will need to fund-raise like crazy every year to keep it running," says Larry Henley, director of UNLV's Performing Arts Center. Henley notes that part of his center's annual $2 million budget is defrayed by the university, which pays for staff and upkeep.

The Smith Center will have to finance those things from its endowment and from ticket sales. The center would provide a permanent home to such local institutions as the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre. The center also is expected to host Broadway plays and major symphonies, ballets and operas.

The city sees the center as a catalyst for improvements to the entire downtown area.

Las Vegas Councilman Lawrence Weekly, whose ward would include the performing arts, recently visited Fort Worth, Texas, and saw the impact of Bass Performance Hall - designed by David M. Schwarz, the architect selected for the Las Vegas center.

"It seemed to breathe a little life into downtown Fort Worth," he says. "It felt as if we were in a place where there was much culture."

The Smith Center could bring that same atmosphere to Las Vegas, he says.

"Of course there are always concerns about money for such projects, but I believe this group will successfully address that issue," he said. "The intensity at their meetings has not faltered. They have debated everything down to the type of stalls they want in the bathrooms."

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