First Amp dialogue draws full house

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 6.27.25 PMChautauqua Institution’s outreach to community members on the Amphitheater project concluded its first week last Friday morning in the Hall of Christ.

More than 100 Chautauquans filled the building’s main auditorium for a community dialogue, which included input through breakout groups.

In the groups and in the general session that followed, there was strong support for the Institution’s plans for the Amphitheater, impassioned feedback from opponents and skeptics coalescing around the Save the Amp alliance, and evident interest and curiosity from other participants, many of whom simply came to learn more about the current state of the largest public works project in the Institution’s recent history.

The administration was represented by President Tom Becker, Vice President and Director of Programming Marty Merkley, and Director of Operations and Administrator of Architectural and Land Use Regulations John Shedd. Vice President and Director of Marketing George Murphy assisted, and Institution consultant Elliot Fishman facilitated.

All three members of the Save the Amp executive committee were in attendance. At least three members of the Institution’s board of trustees, including the chair and vice chair of the board, were present as observers.

Friday’s session was scheduled for 8 to 9:15 a.m. It concluded at 10:15 a.m. Discussion was lively and generally balanced. Many in attendance seemed to regard the meeting as a positive and important step in the direction of greater information exchange.

“I think John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller might have been proud of us this morning,” said one longtime Chautauquan as the session broke up. “I don’t know how many minds were changed, but process is important here, and I believe we honored it today.”

Fishman began the meeting by describing his consulting firm’s mission as “helping cultural institutions to make the best decisions they can make.”

He asked his audience to “listen to each other, respect differences and to expect unfinished business.”

The breakout sessions then commenced.

Groups of eight, assembled largely at random, often included Chautauquans with significantly divergent opinions on the Amp project. They nonetheless all produced summaries of their discussion with three clear points of concern.

Each group chose a speaker who relayed the group’s main points to the general audience, after which Fishman summarized the main points and sought responses from the administration representatives.

Meetings like this, the groups said, should have been held three years ago. Participants also questioned why the Institution had not provided a more consistent information stream in the past year.

Becker said the Institution did reach out to the community during the past few years.

“But we clearly did not do enough to engage and inform the community,” he said. “From the start, we saw this as a historic rehabilitation project. But as we got more deeply into the project last year, our executive architect, Marty Serena, who is from Chicago, and our structural engineering consultants, LPCiminelli of Buffalo, began to report that from the perspectives of time and cost, the roof over the Amp bowl might have to come down.”

Becker said the morning’s meeting was part of the Institution’s effort to “do better, and our decision to defer the project by at least a year gives us some time to re-engage with the community and at the same time improve the project.

“We want to elicit and apply the best ideas we can bring to the table on this project. Its importance is obvious,” Becker continued. “Renovation of the Amp is critical. How we do it is still open to question.”

Audience members also questioned whether the whole project is feasible in one off-season.

Shedd said LPCiminelli is the Institution’s construction representative. They maintain cost and timeline estimates that are regularly updated.

“We have always had in mind a construction timetable which would enable the Institution to get at least a temporary permit of occupancy prior to the beginning of the 2017 season,” Shedd said. “The idea is to take account of all the input and improvements we get this summer and have a contract award for the board of trustees to look at in November. If that process works, we would have time prior to the 2016 season to do a lot of site prep work and testing, hazardous materials abatement, utility work. We would set the stage for construction to begin right after the season. We see the project as an 18-month effort with a nine-week hiatus for the 2016 season.”

Fishman will provide a detailed record of the session at ciweb.org. Three more meetings are scheduled for this week, and for at least four more weeks after that. Check the program page of the Daily for more detailed information on these sessions.