Return of the JFDI

Thanks to some bold thinkers, Sacramento is on the verge of a civic renaissance, the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the Transcontinental Railroad. But at least one big project-in-waiting could derail a brighter future for the arts.

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Dranoff had shown that to be true. The Kimmel Center fueled the development of residences, restaurants and retail in a concentrated area—a constellation of civic amenities that revolved around a single shining star.

But how did a project like this happen in the first place? Dranoff gives the credit for the city’s Avenue of the Arts (the nickname given for South Broad Street in the Center City neighborhood), to former Philadelphia mayor-turned-governor Ed Rendell.

“The mayor made the Avenue of the Arts a priority,” said Dranoff. “He made it one of his primary economic development priorities. He created enough public investment where the private sector could take over. And that’s what you really want to do when you’re planning your new arts center. It can’t be all about public investment. We’ve seen government dollars become scarcer and scarcer. If the private sector is not involved, or can’t be encouraged to become involved, you eventually start to lose your momentum.”

In fact, this fall, Rendell was asked in a Philadelphia Inquirer interview how much of Center City’s success could be traced to the arts.

“All of it,” he answered. “There is no question the Avenue of the Arts started it. If you look at the arts, the Barnes and [Philadelphia] art museum and the orchestra, they appeal to high-end tourists and high-end people who want to live in the city. It was the trigger for the restaurant revival, it was the trigger for the retail revival, and it was certainly the trigger for the population revival. Empty nesters are moving back into the city to be near all this stuff, and young people are moving in because it made Philadelphia a happening place.”

Which brings us back to Sacramento.

Building a new theater gives us the opportunity to create a district. And the blocks surrounding the current theater have no room for new residential. Instead, let’s use the $50 million in public funds that the city wants to put toward the renovation as seed money for a private campaign. Start by selling the naming rights. In Philadelphia, philanthropist Sidney Kimmel spent $15 million for the naming rights, and Verizon paid $14.5 million in cash and in-kind donations for naming rights to the concert hall inside.

San Antonio sold the naming rights to its new performing arts center for $15 million to a locally based foundation. The city’s $203 million center will open next fall.

In 2014, the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts will open in downtown Orlando, with naming rights sold for $25 million, but also with a $10 million donation from the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

Those two cities have an almost identical metropolitan population to ours—just over two million residents each. And both Kansas City and Las Vegas—which have slightly smaller metro populations—recently completed brand-new performing arts centers too.

If we allow the city of Sacramento to spend $50 million on a renovation now, we won’t see another public investment in a new performing arts venue for generations to come.

So where to put the new theater?

Ideas from local leaders have ranged from the Railyards to 301 Capitol Mall to a lot near the Crocker Art Museum. But if we want to ignite our own performing arts district, let’s find a place for it near the Memorial Auditorium and the Wells Fargo Pavilion, where the Music Circus performs. There are several parcels near there that are largely comprised of parking lots and smaller buildings. A site needs to be identified and acquired soon, before those blocks are fully developed.

A new performing arts center—if done right, with extraordinary architecture—will become an economic catalyst for downtown, prompting much-needed residential developments, an increased interest in the arts, and an arts district that will reinvigorate downtown in tandem with the new arena.

Funding will be difficult, as it has been for the other cities mentioned above, but that makes it no less worthwhile a challenge. If these four other similarly sized cities did it—all during the recession—then so can we.

Which brings me to the other key lesson that I, and many others on the trip to Philadelphia, walked away with. On a tour of an office-sharing space in the city’s nascent tech district, we met a young man named Alex Hillman, who showed us a tattoo on his right forearm that read JFDI. It stands for “Just F--king Do It.” Amongst our small group, it has since become an oft-repeated mantra in a very short period of time, and if you look closely, you’ll see the acronym printed on stickers on the backs of cell phones of prominent Sacramentans, including the head of at least one distinguished university.

So it’s time to think big again, people. Let’s not take the easy way out here. Let’s not lock ourselves into generations of mediocrity. Let’s not sacrifice greatness for short-term practicality. Instead, let’s embrace the civic chutzpah of our Wild West forefathers when it comes to building our city’s future.

Let’s JFDI, Sacramento. ’Nuff said. S