The folks who gathered one autumn evening for a “town meeting” at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park took in the familiar surroundings as they strolled in — from the towering trees and turning leaves of Eden Park to the vista overlooking the sparkling lights of Downtown.

Theater patrons and subscribers, along with Mount Adams residents and business owners who live and work within walking distance, were among those assembled to find out if what they were hearing is true: The Playhouse is moving to those Downtown lights.

As staged by Playhouse Board President Jack Rouse and Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern, the script called for hearing what people have to say — and to declare that no decision has been made. But the score heard by many in attendance suggested the sound of moving vans idling outside at the loading dock.

“What they were saying didn’t jibe with how they were saying it,” says Melissa Kendrick, 42, who works for a “large multinational corporation” Downtown. “And reading that material made me think the same thing — that they’re only looking at one place.”

Recalling the late, great Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, it seems that “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Nothing definite has been decided about the Playhouse because the issue at hand is not just about a beloved regional theater on a scenic hill. It’s much bigger than that — bigger as in making Greater Cincinnati the leading performing arts center in the Midwest, next to Chicago.

The facts stack up like this: Key arts and business leaders in Greater Cincinnati see the Playhouse as a main ingredient in a new performing arts center Downtown, close to the rejuvenated Fountain Square and the Aronoff Center. They’re eyeing the parking lot next to Macy’s at Fifth and Race Street. Then there’s the Macy’s store itself, which was built to accommodate additional floors above its current roof line. There’s even talk of building on both sites and connecting the two with an elevated walkway. Can you say “Skywalk”?

Rouse and Stern envision this performing arts center encompassing four theaters at a potential cost “north of $100 million,” Rouse says. The Playhouse could join with the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati — never happy in the oft-maligned Taft Theatre — along with the Cincinnati Ballet and, on occasion, the Cincinnati Opera. Their ideal facility would include a 1,500-seat proscenium theater (for ballet, opera and children’s theater), a 650-seat proscenium theater (Playhouse main-stage productions), a 300-seat thrust-stage room (Shelterhouse productions) and a 200-seat “black box” theater, which could be used for education and family programs.


STERN AND ROUSE AT CENTER STAGE

“We haven’t made a decision. Really, we haven’t,” insists Ed Stern, the frustration evident in his voice. “We haven’t even begun feasibility studies to tell us if it’s possible.”

One thing Stern has decided, long ago: The Playhouse, wherever it’s located, needs to become a modern theater to serve its 18,000 subscribers.

In the mid-1990s, the Playhouse raised $8.4 million for a series of improvements, including an expanded dining area for patrons, the addition of a second rehearsal hall, expanded and updated dressing rooms, and a new administrative wing.

But that only began to address the shortcomings, Stern says. He cites a leaky roof, difficult sight lines, an inadequate backstage area and seating that ranges from awkward to downright uncomfortable. And there’s the deficiency he mentions most: A complex that is wholly unappealing to young audiences.

“Really, I don’t care about moving,” Stern insists. I need to have a theater that works. But no matter how much I say it, it seems that people hear what they want to hear.”

Back in 2005, the Playhouse commissioned a feasibility study to explore a total overhaul. But the study estimated the theater could raise only $35 million of the $60 million needed.

Enter Jack Rouse, stage right. From museums to theme parks, his Jack Rouse Associates specializes in helping such venues draw customers.

Rouse says he’s being truthful when he implies that no decision has been made about the Playhouse, but that’s because he’s looking at the possibilities of that grander plan.

“The lens cannot be Playhouse-centric,” he asserts. “It makes sense only if there’s a consortium. It has to be what’s best for the overall health of Downtown and for our audiences.” That echoes what Rouse said after one of the town meetings: “Obviously, a healthy, vibrant Downtown with restaurants and bars and entertainment and arts and culture is terribly important. All you have to do is be Downtown when there’s a show at the Aronoff to realize how much Downtown sizzles.”

Rouse says this may be the first time that a comprehensive master plan for Cincinnati performing arts, in terms of bricks and mortar, has been considered. Potential donors are responding favorably to savings that could be realized by building one project to serve multiple needs. “One capital campaign and not three is a huge part of it,” he remarks.

Stern, too, knows who butters the bread in town — and what gets their attention. “Individuals and corporations and foundations are focused on Downtown proper,” Stern notes. “They’re not interested in a Playhouse in the Park.”

Rouse says potential collaborators are enthusiastic.

“The project is brilliant,” says Susie Louiso, executive director of the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. “We’ve grown so much over the years. We need a new home,” she says, adding that her board is “definitely open to it.”

The response to Rouse’s pitch was the same at the Cincinnati Ballet, where artistic director Victoria Morgan says that the company has many productions that are better suited to a 1,500-seat theater than the 2,700-seat Procter & Gamble Hall at the Aronoff Center.

“We would still do many productions at the Aronoff,” Morgan notes, “but this would give us greater flexibility. And I like the idea of a closer relationship with the Playhouse. I like the idea of a theater that is sexy and hip and Downtown — and houses multiple kinds of organizations.”


WATCHING FROM THE WINGS

David Ginsburg, CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., says DCI hasn’t taken a position, adding that the organization considers Mount Adams as part of the Downtown area that it defines as “Center City.”

The Playhouse is “a wonderful asset for Center City right where it is” with the other nearby arts facilities in the park, Ginsburg says. But he also says it might be more wonderful located Downtown.

“Virtually to a person, there isn’t anyone who thinks that bringing the Playhouse Downtown wouldn’t be a great thing to complement the other arts and entertainment attractions Downtown,” Ginsburg adds, recalling conversations with his board members.

Others are more diplomatically cautious. The Fine Arts Fund — arguably the most influential arts-related organization in the region — is keeping its hands off the topic.

“We really do not take positions on this kind of an issue any more than we intercede on issues of programming,” says Mary McCullough-Hudson, president and CEO of the fund, which each year raises and distributes millions in corporate and individual donations to arts organizations.

One aspect of the Downtown formula that intrigues her, though, is that four established institutions would be working together so intimately. “It’s extremely attractive,” McCullough-Hudson allows. “For operating efficiency and combining resources, it’s wonderful, not to mention the fact that it might offer a very different kind of financing model that may include public and private kinds of enterprises that could be a whole new approach.”

Over at City Hall, Milton Dohoney Jr. says the City Council has no plans to get involved in the debate about where the Playhouse winds up.

“We defer to the Playhouse board as to where they feel like their future is best served,” the city manager says. “They have approached us in the past with an interest to be in the Downtown area, and so we respect that and have had conversations with them about that.”

He notes that the development of the city-owned property at Fifth and Race is now in the hands of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., known as 3CDC. The private agency invested some $40 million in the redesign and reconstruction of Fountain Square, one block east of the Fifth and Race site.

What about the prospect of city neighborhoods being pitted against one another?

“There is clearly no strategy to take from other neighborhoods in order to enhance the Downtown area,” Dohoney replies, stressing again that a Playhouse move is up to its board. “Although it might move to another neighborhood, this is not Los Angeles, so you’re only talking about a 10-minutes drive from where they currently are.”

The Cincinnati Park Board — the Playhouse’s landlord — is eager to keep the theater right where it is. “There have been rumblings that the park board doesn’t want the Playhouse here and that is so totally not true,” says Marijane Krug, the board’s CFO. “We do not want them to go and we have never said that we want them to go.”

She notes that the park board’s decision to allow the Playhouse to operate on a year-to-year lease is ample evidence of the board’s willingness to work with the theater. The two parties have discussed a mutually agreeable expansion proposal, she says.

And what about the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber? Spokesman Chris Kemper says the chamber recognizes that the Playhouse and the arts in general are critically vital assets for the community. “On the surface, it appears as though there could be advantages to such a move, both for the Playhouse and for Downtown,” Kemper says. “However, as we understand it, there is still much to be determined. We will continue to follow the topic closely and with interest.”

The idea of a new $100 million performing arts center at Fifth and Race raises an obvious question: How would it affect other facilities, from Music Hall up on Central Avenue to the Aronoff Center for the Arts, just three blocks away?

For the Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages both, the prospect of a Playhouse-led theater complex Downtown is a mixed blessing. More theatrical activity Downtown would be welcome, says CAA President Steve Loftin. “I applaud the Playhouse for their visioning,” he remarks. “If this were to come together, it would create a destination Downtown.”

The new complex that Rouse envisions could become home to a handful of performances that once took place in CAA theaters. As Victoria Morgan suggests, the Cincinnati Ballet could move one or two performance series to the new 1,500-seat theater, while leaving larger story ballets at the Aronoff.

As for the Cincinnati Opera, it is almost certain that its summer subscription season would remain at Music Hall, while the occasional new, non-summer production could take place in the new 1,500 seat theater.

“So I really don’t think that the Playhouse moving Downtown — even an expanded Playhouse — would be competition for us,” Loftin concludes. “For the most part, it would offer activity that doesn’t exist now. And if it’s Downtown, it’s good for all of us.”


ENTER BUDIG AND BORTZ

Watching all of this with keen interest is Otto M. Budig Jr., philanthropist and patron saint of Cincinnati arts, whose family foundation is a prime sponsor of the Playhouse (where you enter the Otto M. Budig Lobby). “The jury is still out,” says the long-serving member of the Playhouse board of trustees, who then goes over the list of pros and cons of moving the theater. “Hovering over all of this is, of course, money.”

He recalls the 2005 study indicating a fundraising shortfall for a major Playhouse renovation. “If we relocated Downtown, there would be the opportunity for additional fiscal assistance from the city, potentially the county, the state Cultural Facilities Commission.”

Budig happens to chair that commission, which awards grants for artistic, historical and cultural projects around Ohio, and made the Aronoff Center possible with a $40 million stake.

“But the whole matter is in the hands of 3CDC to develop a feasibility study,” he notes. “They have been given the challenge of determining what would best be suited for that area (Fifth & Race). And while they know of our interest, that does not mean our project is a given.”

Another key observer is Neil Bortz, one of the founders and owners of Towne Properties, the real estate development firm that launched the renaissance of Mount Adams when it began rehabbing rundown buildings there in 1961. Bortz recently joined the Playhouse board. With his good friend, Jack Rouse, he embarked on a recent Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul, learning how the Twin Cities enhanced its reputation as an arts center.

“I’m very conflicted personally because my two loves are Mount Adams and Downtown,” Bortz admits. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done to determine what works best — first for the Playhouse and then, hopefully, it will be good somehow or other for Mount Adams and Downtown.

Bortz says he needs more information. And, like Budig, he says money will talk. “If one (option) becomes significantly less expensive than the other, that probably would persuade most people that that would be the way to go.”

If the Playhouse moves and isn’t replaced by a facility that attracts a volume of visitors, “Mount Adams would clearly prosper less,” Bortz acknowledges. Without the Playhouse the community would be “a little less of the special package that it has been.”

It seems, though, that Towne Properties wouldn’t suffer. The company is one of four development firms in the Cincinnati Development Group, which owns the Macy’s store that could become a base for a new performing arts center.


GRAND FINALE

Keeping the Playhouse in Eden Park remains a possibility, Stern says, especially with a future economic climate that is uncertain at best. He and Rouse say the next step is completing those feasibility studies.

“Make no mistake: Change is clearly going to happen,” Stern says. “The big question is how do we keep the audience we have and show them the respect they deserve and, at the same time, not piss away the next generation of theatergoers?”

He says that next generation could arise if the thousands of school children who attend Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati annually saw a new Playhouse located nearby. “The only thing I’m insistent about is that I’m not going to settle for the inferior stages we have here now,” Stern continues. “We have two different potential courses ahead of us. We should and must be open to both of them."