The city of Frisco is planning a beautiful new arts center in Hall Park.
For long-time residents of Collin County this might sound odd, because in 2011 Frisco and its residents pulled out of the proposed Arts Center of North Texas after a decade of work.
On June 22, Frisco City Council unanimously approved an agreement to construct a performing arts center. While the exact design is still in the works, the initial proposal includes a main performance hall with at least 1,250 seats, a smaller venue with 250 seats, a parking garage and a five-acre park.
The city estimates the total cost of the project is $129 million, of which the city of Frisco and the Frisco Community Development Corporation are contributing $62 million, Frisco ISD is contributing $43 million, and the HALL Group is contributing $25 million, including the land.
Tammy Meinershagen, President of Frisco Arts, has been advocating for a performing arts center in Frisco for close to a decade.
“My reaction when I heard it at Council that first time it got the unanimous vote, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this really happening?’ I’m so excited,” Meinershagen said. “I mean, you know, I had a dance of joy. I squealed.”
The city has had a difficult history with performing arts centers.
In 2002, Frisco, Plano, and Allen each authorized $19 million in bonds to build a 124-acre arts park near the center of Collin County in Allen. When it came time to sell those bonds in 2011, Frisco voters decided to pull out of the project. Without Frisco’s funding, the project collapsed.
Tom and Toni Fabry were members of a PAC called Save Frisco, which led efforts to pull out of the multi-city deal 10 years ago. They had four main reasons for opposing the arts center: It was increasing taxes during a recession; other infrastructure needed funding; the project relied too much on public funding and too little on private funding, and the cost to operate the center would be placed on the taxpayer. The couple moved from Frisco a year ago, but remain opposed to public funds being the primary financial support for arts centers.
“It’s a great concept,” Toni Fabry said. “What city wouldn’t want a beautiful art center? But the reality is somebody has to pay for it, and I don’t know if every single taxpayer understands where the money comes from, how the sausage is made and how everything comes out in the end. So then they get that tax bill and it’s like, ‘Woah.’”
Frisco’s current mayor, Jeff Cheney, was a city council member during the referendum. He says he came away from that referendum thinking that the people of Frisco wanted a performing arts center, but they wanted it in the city limits. He admits the idea of public funding of the arts had become a political issue in the city, and that had gotten in the way of progress.
“It did take some time for all the vested parties, from FISD to the city, to say, ‘We’re going to put politics aside, and we’re going to work toward the best interests of the community,’” Cheney said. “We’re going to listen to our residents, who are saying that they want us to bring this asset to the City of Frisco, and that’s what everyone did.”
In 2013, Meinershagen created a Facebook group called “Build a Performing Arts Center in Frisco, Texas” to see if she could drum up support. In 2015, she pushed for a budget that included $10 million in bonds for a performing arts center. The proposition passed by around 800 votes, which, she says, was roughly the size of her group at the time.
“I consider this, like, the ‘People’s Project,’ because without the voters, we wouldn’t have the bonds for the city, right?” Meinershagen said.
A year after the city voted to set aside $10 million in bonds, Frisco parents and students started asking the school district for a performing arts space, said René Archambault, President of the Frisco ISD Board since 2018. The bond proposal went through a rigorous advising committee process that took around two years before Frisco ISD put the $43 million proposal to the voters in 2018.
“We had students actually in the boardroom when we voted on this initiative,” Armambault said. “It was just so wonderful to watch their faces light up when they realized the impact of what this partnership and this opportunity means for them.”
Since Frisco ISD is the largest funder of the center, one of its primary functions is meeting student needs. But the school district estimates it will use the facilities 150 to 170 days a year, which creates opportunities for private art events in the remaining days.
“Obviously, our students come first,” Cheney said. “But then, we also want to showcase to the public, art. There is potential for a museum, there’s event space, obviously looking for, perhaps, Broadway-type shows or others serving the private component.”
The opportunity to host private arts events was a large consideration for Cheney, since the demand for the arts has grown within the city. A 2018 study commissioned by the tourism organization, Visit Frisco, found that the number one reason people leave Frisco was to see arts attractions. And Cheney says he has heard that sentiment as a public official.
“We’re always trying to fill those needs as far as why people leave the city,” Cheney said. “The number one reason is we weren’t delivering enough of [the arts] and really needed a venue and a partner to fill that need and the growing thirst for performing arts in our community. That’s why this became a top priority for us.”
A new plan
After the school passed the bonds in 2018, the city began looking for private partners to help fill that need, and they found Craig Hall, the founder and Chairman of the HALL Group. The Hall Group has been involved in arts development in North Texas for decades and even offered to donate the land for the original three-city project in 2011.
“Bringing a performing arts center to Frisco has been a dream of the city’s for many years now,” said Hall. “And we are excited to be playing a role in the public-private partnership with Frisco ISD and the City of Frisco that will turn this dream into a reality. Art enhances our life experiences and is a very important element to all great cities. So we look forward to seeing this performing arts center become a destination in Frisco – for its students, residents and visitors.”
The city will continue to look for private partners and funding until January 2022 when the budget will be finalized and the visioning process will begin. The level of private versus public funding hasn’t been decided. But Tom and Toni Fabry still have many of the same concerns they had with the Arts Center of North Texas. Though they’re no longer living in Frisco, they doubt that city residents’ opinions have changed drastically.
“The geography wasn’t the primary issue,” Tom Fabry said. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s still primary issues that somebody needs to address and make the taxpayers feel good about the expenditure of their future money in perpetuity.”
Mike Simpson was the mayor of Frisco in 2002, when Frisco approved funding for the Arts Center of North Texas. He went on to head Arts of Collin County, the group charged with building the center, until the project collapsed in 2012. He thinks that this latest effort in Frisco will be different. Plano and Allen have successfully gone on to fund their own performing arts centers. Plano’s is still in the planning phase; Allen’s opened in the fall of 2011. And, Simpson said, the population of Frisco itself has changed. For him, the past is in the past. He just hopes that at 80 years old, he will live to see the opening day.
“I will be ecstatic. I will be emotional because it takes a long time for things to get done and it’s going to be a twenty-year project from when the whole concept first started, and I think I will just be on top of the world to see that we’re finally getting this done,” Simpson said. “While it’s taken a lot of time to get it done, things happen for a reason and we will now have, in Frisco, a very high quality performing arts center that will benefit the entire region.”