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The landmark Stevens Center in Winston-Salem appears to be a victim of the political hardball in the 2019-20 state budget negotiations.
A request for $42.2 million to renovate the downtown facility has been excluded from the compromise unveiled Tuesday by House and Senate budget writers.
UNC School of the Arts owns the 77,500-square-foot Stevens Center.
The House budget included the Stevens Center funding, but the Senate budget took it out.
“The House leadership asked for the entire Forsyth County delegation to be in full agreement and support the funds in the budget and support the budget,” said Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and the lead House budget writer.
“Only three of the five members of the delegation were in support of the budget and conference report, so funding was deleted.”
Rep. Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth, said that "unfortunately, some members decided that allegiance to the governor was more important than a significant economic development project for Winston-Salem and a first-class training facility for UNCSA."
"I am deeply disappointed, but I am committed to pursuing funding in the 2020 short session."
Rep. Derwin Montgomery, D-Forsyth, said he and Democratic Rep. Evelyn Terry were told by House leadership that funding for the Stevens Center renovations was made conditional on he and Terry supporting not only the budget compromise, but also overriding a potential Cooper veto.
“House leadership is making every attempt to get the votes necessary to override a veto, and we weren’t willing to do that,” Montgomery said.
“I can’t tell you specifically why the Stevens Center was chosen as the key negotiating tool.”
Jim DeCristo, UNCSA’s vice chancellor for economic development and chief of staff, said the university is “disappointed that funding to renovate the Stevens Center was not included in the compromise budget, but we’re grateful to our Forsyth delegates for their advocacy.”
“We will continue to pursue all avenues for support, both public and private. The Stevens Center remains our top capital priority, and we are hopeful for future funding opportunities.”
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is insisting that some form of Medicaid expansion be included in the budget, along with additional education and environmental funding.
Cooper has not said he would veto the state budget compromise, but analysts and political science professors say such a scenario is likely.
Cooper would need to keep all 21 Democratic senators on board with his veto, and have no more than six Democratic House members agree to an override.
Montgomery said that even though some Democrat legislators likely have been given similar funding choices in the budget compromise, “I believe there will be enough support to uphold the governor’s veto in the House.”
Patrick McHugh, policy analyst with left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, said "it's no secret that leaders in the legislature are trying to buy votes on the budget by funding pet projects in members' home districts."
"Clearly budget writers are resorting to some old political tricks to get around the fact that their spending plan fails to close the Medicaid coverage gap and gives even more tax breaks to big corporations that don't need them."
The Senate budget proposal lacked $200 million in N.C. Education Bond capital allocations because the Senate did not approve the bond, according to Bill D’Elia, spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. The $42 million for the Stevens Center is part of the bond.
House Bill 494, which includes the Stevens Center funding, cleared just one of four committees since being introduced March 27.
In September 2017, the board of trustees approved a concept master renovation plan.
Construction and other items, including furnishings, new rigging systems, lighting and audio/visual equipment were projected at that time to cost $35.2 million.
“We can’t count on state funding alone to cover the costs,” UNCSA Chancellor Lindsay Bierman said in September 2017. “We’ll only get this done as a public-private partnership.
“We will continue to seek private funding to ensure that we can afford state-of-the-art equipment and technology that our students will need to master in their rapidly-changing industries.”
Bierman expects the overall renovations to take 18 months.
Renovations to the 10-level building would include a second balcony and the elimination of some seats.
The current seating capacity of the Stevens Center is 1,366, and the concept plan would reduce seating to 1,024 seats but increase two levels of seating to three, including a “necklace-style” mezzanine composed of modular boxes, providing more leg room and street-level access to orchestra-level seating.
According to HB494, the public money would be spent on significant upgrades to plumbing, mechanical, electrical and life safety systems, theater sound, lighting and stage equipment.
WSSU project funding on hold
The bond exclusion also affects the $15.1 million for renovating and expanding the Hauser building at Winston-Salem State University. and the $25.4 million toward the renovation project for Wey Hall at Appalachian State University.
The budget compromise commits to providing $15.1 million for the Hauser renovation, but not in the next two fiscal years.
“The budget writers are saying that the parties agree this WSSU project will be funded at some point,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.
In the budget section under capital projects, repairs and renovations, there were only three other projects out of 53 overall that had a funding commitment made, but no funding attached for the next two fiscal years.
They were: $20 million for the Australia continent exhibit at the N.C. Zoo; $4.9 million for parking and trams at the Zoo; and $4.5 million from the amphitheater restoration at N.C. Museum of Art.
Montgomery said the funding pledge rings hollow to him.
“It’s not a real commitment because it would fall to a new General Assembly with a new budget to honor the commitment,” Montgomery said.
“It looks good on paper, but it’s not a real commitment.”
The Way renovation was not included in the compromise.
The budget also includes a $5.2 million appropriation for the Forsyth County Veterans Home from the state Department of Military and Veteran Affairs Department.
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