In a development that many people in Jefferson Parish probably thought would never happen, construction teams are putting the final touches on the Jefferson Performing Arts Center.
Workers are installing carpeting and making other minor additions. Cleaning crews are moving through the building, wiping down the glass panels that permeate the design. On the stage, crews are literally learning the ropes as they train on the elaborate pulleys that control the curtains and dividers in front of a room of 1,050 empty seats.
After more than a decade and a half and a long series of issues that more than doubled its original price tag, the Performing Arts Center is nearly done.
The beleaguered building has been an albatross around the parish’s neck for years, plagued by design problems, cost overruns, legal fights between the parish and its original architect and an audit that questioned some of the spending on the project and the way it was managed.
Those problems meant the project, which was once due to be completed in 2009 at a cost of $26.6 million, dragged on as its price tag rose. In the end, construction alone will cost the parish and the state, which paid for much of the project, about $54.5 million.
Standing on the stage Monday and looking out over seats still in their plastic wrapping, Joe Caldarera, whose firm — J. Caldarera and Co. — has been the contractor on the project since construction started, said he believed parish residents would like the final result.
“After all this long hoopla we’ve been through, we’re going to give the parish a beautiful building,” he said.
Construction on the roughly 86,000-square-foot center on Airline Drive next to Zephyr Stadium will be completed this week, Caldarera said, though inspections won’t be done until the end of the month.
On a tour of the facility, Caldarera touted the features of the performance space, including an orchestra pit that can be raised and lowered by a motor-driven system and a state-of-the-art acoustic design.
The idea of a performing arts center for Jefferson Parish was first conceived in the 1990s by Dennis Assaf, executive director of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, who wanted a permanent home for his group’s presentations.
The Parish Council hired Wisznia and Associates, an architectural firm, to start designing the project in 2002, but problems arose even before construction began, including issues with the design and elevation of the building. A total of eight change orders were needed over the past six years to bring the project home.
An audit by the state Legislative Auditor’s Office released in 2011 documented serious issues with the project under former Parish President Aaron Broussard’s administration, including problems with oversight over changes and invoices. The report also criticized the parish for not properly answering the contractor’s questions or making sure the parish’s Code Enforcement Department and the state Fire Marshal’s Office signed off on the plans before they were put in place, something that later cost the parish dearly.
Asked about some of the changes that increased the cost, Caldarera pointed to steps and landings that provide emergency exits. Those three sets of stairs — necessary to ensure the center’s patrons can get out in case of emergencies — had to be added to the plans late in the process, after the pile-driving equipment needed to build their foundations had left the site.
Asked about the problems Monday, Caldarera declined to say what he thought had gone wrong with the project or who was to blame.
After paying Wisznia $1.9 million, the parish sued the firm and its subcontractors to get its money back, eventually recovering $1.3 million in a settlement in 2012.
While the building itself is nearly complete, work remains to be done before the venue can open. The parish will now work with SMG, a national management company that operates the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Center, to put in computer equipment and other needed features. The parish will bear the cost of those expenses.
“SMG is assisting Jefferson Parish with the selection and acquisition of information technology for JPAC, as well as the selection and procurement of owner-supplied furniture, fixtures and equipment,” parish Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Van Vrancken Dwyer said in an emailed statement.
Once those elements are in place, SMG will run the facility, though the performances themselves will be handled by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society. Parish attorneys are still negotiating with SMG, and the terms of the proposed deal were not available Monday.
“While SMG will be tasked with management and operations, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society will be designated as the ‘Artist in Residence’ and will be considered the primary resident company in the new facility for artistic presentations,” Van Vrancken Dwyer said.
But once those last steps are put in place, Caldarera said, he thinks the public will be happy with the result.
“I think people are going to be proud of this place,” he said. “I think when they get in here, they’re going to forget all the issues.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.