Kissimmee study will focus on downtown performing arts venue at civic center

Kissimmee and Osceola County leaders are in discussions to do a complete overhaul of the Kissimmee Civic Center and transform it into a performing and cultural arts venue.

The city posted a Request for Proposals (RFP) on March 7 for a feasibility study to determine the best use for the 42,000-square-foot facility, and to estimate the cost to convert it into a performance and meeting space.

"That structure was built in the early 1990s, and the concept dates back to the late 80s," Parks and Recreation Director Elizabeth Harris told GrowthSpotter. "It was a multipurpose center, and at the time it was the thing to have in the community."

The civic center, which seats up to 10,000 people, has hosted everything from circuses and sporting events to political rallies. Harris said it's used seven days a week and is already booked a year in advance.

"It's a well-used facility, but it's looking a bit tired," Harris said.

Osceola Arts, which is led by County Commission Chairman Brandon Arrington, has approached both the city and county with a proposal to earmark $10 million of Tourist Development Taxes (TDT) for the project and take over management of the facility.

Osceola County collected nearly $50 million last year in TDT, half of which goes to Experience Kissimmee for marketing. The county has approximately $45 million in reserves but a debt capacity of just $15 million.

County Manager Don Fisher briefed the commissioners on the civic center project and TDT funding during a recent strategic planning session. 

"It’s a good location next to SunRail, and it's a quality of life improvement," Fisher said. "The concept is to build a 1,000-seat theater and smaller 200-seat theater. The estimate is somewhere around $10 million to make a programming adjustment and have a significant improvement in arts in Osceola County."

Fisher said converting the civic center and expanding the county's trail system are both qualified projects for TDT funding and both would help the county attract more high paying jobs, especially at the NeoCity research park. 

"With regard to this issue – talking with imec, they’re having a hard time hiring talent," Fisher said. "And the issue is not only does Florida pay differently than where they’re from -- California and New York -- that can all be adjusted because the cost of living is so much lower. The two things that are different here is the housing and quality of life component."

There's also the thought that adapting the building for cultural arts would bring more nighttime activity to Downtown Kissimmee, and would lure customers with higher disposable income.

"There's not a lot of diversity in arts and culture right now," Arrington told GrowthSpotter. "We've seen the success the Dr. Phillips Center has had in Orlando. This wouldn't be quite the scale of that but it could create a focal point for Osceola County, and the location next to SunRail makes it a great opportunity to bring tourists in to experience the program."

Commissioner Viviana Janer echoed his sentiments during the workshop. "When you talk about the civic center and performance space, we've said over and over that quality of life is a priority," she said. "For me, that catapults it over the others for the (TDT) investment."

The City of Kissimmee used special purpose sales tax revenue to build the civic center in 1994 -- then for the bargain price of $2.7 million.

"As long as I’ve been here, there’s always been talk about what to do with the building," City Manager Mike Steigerwald said. "It is well-used, but over time, the commissioners have struggled with the fact that it wasn’t bringing a lot of activities to the area."

City leaders do see an opportunity to create synergies between a new cultural arts center, SunRail, the adjacent Kissimmee Lakefront Park and the Mosaic downtown redevelopment project. But there are trade-offs.

"On the one hand, there is interest," Steigerwald said. "They see the attendance that an arts center would bring and it would really help the businesses and restaurants downtown. It would bring people with disposable income downtown at night."

Osceola Arts wanted to keep the ballroom/meeting space function. Arrington said it meets a vital community need, and it can host small conferences and speakers in addition to a steady stream of weddings and Quinceaneras. 

But city officials are concerned about losing the civic center as recreational space and a fitness center. Harris said the only other indoor basketball courts are located at Denn John Middle School, and they aren't available during school hours.  

"We would have to build another gymnasium, which is not inexpensive," Steigerwald said. City staff also would have to relocate, he added.

That's why the feasibility study is so important, Harris said. Proposals are due April 3, and City Commissioners hope to award a contract by May 2. They want the consultant to start immediately by hosting at least two public meetings to gather input from the community.

The study should evaluate whether the civic center could be renovated for performing arts,  estimate the cost and produce a business plan for such a facility.

"We're shooting for a June 13 deadline, so when final report comes out June 20, that’s in line with budget workshop schedule," Harris said. "The next step would probably be a request for letters of interest. We would definitely have to put it out there as a competitive bid."

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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