Round Two

by Mary Tutwiler

Derailed by skyrocketing building costs in 2007, The Acadiana Center for the Arts Theatre is back on track to go out for bid with an additional infusion of cash from the state.
Architect Steve Oubre has been sharpening his pencil. “We have real numbers now,” he says, tapping his eraser on the 20-pound stack of paper that represents plans for the phase-two theatre that will complete the Acadiana Center for the Arts’ facility. Last November, when the plans went out for bid, the ACA had $8.6 million in state funds budgeted for construction. The lowest bid came back at a shocking $12.8 million topped by a $13.4 million high bid — prices blamed on a booming international construction industry that has driven up the cost of steel, concrete and copper. Labor is at a premium as well due to frenetic rebuilding in south Louisiana following hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

Oubre went back to the drawing board with ACA staff to look at theatre design changes to cut costs. Nobody wanted to risk the quality of the acoustics in the multi-purpose performing arts theatre. Rather than compromise the silent air conditioning system — an essential for acoustic music and spoken word performances — then-AAC Director Buddy Palmer, directed by his planning committee, went back to the state to ask for additional funds. Those funds, $5.8 million, are listed as a Priority 5 item in the state’s capital outlay budget for this year’s legislative session. Priority 5 is the catch-all for construction projects; legislators can lodge feel-good ideas that may never make it beyond the pipe dream stage in Priority 5, as well as fully designed plans ready to go out for bid.

According to Lafayette Sen. and Finance Committee Chairman Mike Michot, the art center’s original $8.6 million is reserved in Priority 1 in cash, and combined with additional money in Priority 5, it’s exactly where the ACA wants to be. “The way the capital outlay process works is kind of squirrely,” he says. Since the original plans for the theatre have already been approved and funded by the state, and with $8.6 million already in the bank, the ACA can go out for bid with the revised plans. If the bids are acceptable this time, they can begin construction. The $5.8 million in Priority 5 is called “following money,” and once it’s approved by the Legislature, it works as a kind of I.O.U. — the ACA can sign contracts based on what is essentially state credit. By the time the $8.6 million is spent, the additional $5.8 million will be converted into cash to keep the project on line.

Michot, along with Barry Hickman, the state Office of Facility Planning and Control architect who reviewed the revised plans, and Lafayette city engineer Larry Broussard, who is managing the project for the ACA and the city, are confident that the state funding will flow as planned. “The project is approved,” Michot says. “It is going forward.”

The only variables are the bids themselves — and Oubre says he learned from previous mistakes. “We accommodated the costs, that’s the first thing,” he says. The second is designing in architectural alternates that don’t affect the acoustics. “We changed a window system. We changed the floors. The numbers we have now are within budget,” he continues. “We’re being very conservative.” If the last bid round of $12.5 million is an accurate reflection of what this year’s process will bring, the theatre will be covered by a total of $14 million. That leaves a $1 million cushion to reintroduce architectural details, like stone floors.

Now five years in planning, the state-of-the-art theatre will host events by PASA, the Acadiana Symphony, Louisiana Crossroads, Louisiana Folk Roots and other community and touring troupes. Oubre and newly appointed ACA Executive Director Gerd Wuestemann say the plans will go out for bid in late July, and the theatre could break ground as soon as November. With a 16-month construction schedule, the theatre could open as early as March 2010. “Once it’s in place, I think people will see how needed it is,” says Wuestemann. “We plan to build one of the finest facilities in the world.”