Cincinnati Ballet’s Move to a New $30M Center Will Be Transformational
Driving into downtown Cincinnati, it’s easy to see the homes of the region’s Fortune 500 companies such as Procter & Gamble Co.’s twin towers on Elm Street and Kroger Co.’s headquarters on Vine Street, or the Reds’ and Bengals’ homes in the Banks.
Soon, another icon will have similar visibility, just north of the Central Business District: The Cincinnati Ballet is on the move.
The region’s largest professional ballet company has for the past two years been trying to find a new home as it is growing by every measure. They’ve found a first position: The Ballet just signed a purchase agreement with Neyer Properties Inc. for 2 acres of highly visible land along Interstate 71, just south of the historical Baldwin Building in Walnut Hills. There, the Ballet plans to build the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance. The 57,000-square-foot center will increase the Ballet’s space by more than 58%, giving the dance company the room it needs to expand.
“This is the first arts building in Cincinnati that people driving by on the expressway will see and engage with,” said Matthew Schottelkotte, CEO of GBBN and lead architect for the dance center. “That’s a strong statement about the arts for our city.”
The new center is expected to be a total investment of $30 million. While the building will give more room to practice grand jetés and pas de bourrée, the Ballet wants the center to provide something more.
“It’s the time of the Ballet to step up and be another jewel in the queen’s crown that is Cincinnati,” said Ballet CEO Scott Altman. “The time of the Ballet is now.”
With the development and construction of a new dance center in Walnut Hills, the Ballet will secure its future for years to come. The center will provide room for growth, a vehicle for attracting and retaining the best dance talent, and the space for the Walnut Hills community and the broader region to engage with the Ballet through its education and community programs.
To truly stand out as a region, Cincinnati needs to maintain and boost an arts community that already punches above its weight. The ballet’s investment aims for a commitment other cities dream about.
Currently, the Ballet leases space at 1555 Central Parkway in the West End. The building was constructed in 1994 and expanded to 36,000 square feet with the addition of the Mickey Jarson Kaplan studio in 2005.
In September 2018, the Ballet’s board approved a capital campaign for the center. In its quiet phase, the Ballet has raised more than $24 million, or 80% of its goal, from 64 donors. The Ballet is just now rolling out its public phase of fundraising.
Victoria Morgan, the Cincinnati Ballet’s longtime artistic director, said the organization has big dreams and big ideas. This facility, she said, will allow it to take those much-needed steps.
“This is 50 years in the making and will take us 50 years into the future,” Morgan said.
Need for more space
For several years, the Ballet has known it needed more room. The Ballet has been growing across the board, from attendance to revenue to enrollment at the Otto M. Budig Academy, which is housed in the same space as the Ballet.
The number of performances has increased considerably over the last three years, with the addition of its annual family series and expansion to include Thursday evening performances. Attendance increased to 70,400 for the 2018-19 season, an increase of 21% compared with 2015-16.
The academy, which offers top-level professional ballet training, saw 21% growth in schoolyear enrollment in 2018-19. Enrollment for 2019-20 is already tracking ahead of last year. Overall enrollment, including adult and summer programming, has seen steady growth over the past five years. The Ballet expects that growth to accelerate in the new, larger space as programs have sold out consistently. Today, 92% of the Ballet’s children’s division classes are near capacity or have waiting lists.
“Every part of our organization has the opportunity to grow,” Morgan said.
In 2016, the Ballet reached out to the real estate community looking for land or an existing structure that could accommodate the organization. Altman said they realized the Ballet’s unique requirements — high ceilings, no columns, easy access and more parking — would make building a new facility a better option than trying to retrofit an existing one.
This spot in Walnut Hills was attractive because of its location, its ease of access, its connection to the city and its connection to the Cincinnati Art Museum and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in Eden Park. Neyer Properties presented the 1801 Gilbert Ave. location rather early on. As the Ballet and its committee vetted and looked at options, this site continued to rise to the top.
Dan Neyer, CEO of Neyer Properties, said the real estate development company looked at a number of options for this parcel when it acquired the Baldwin complex in 2014. Office, retail or hotel development all could have fit on the site, but none of those uses complemented the rest of the complex and the surrounding neighborhood the way the Ballet will.
“We knew this was the perfect fit for what we’re trying to create there,” Neyer said. “This is the perfect user to complete the gateway to Walnut Hills, Eden Park and the Baldwin development.”
The Ballet has been working with GBBN to design the new dance center and with Messer Construction Co. to build the center. J.S. Held Inc. serves as owner’s representative.
Schottelkotte said the design was influenced by the idea Morgan stressed about breaking down the stereotype that ballet is only for a certain group of people. The two largest of eight studios will have large windows, each providing a unique, panoramic view of Cincinnati. But the windows also give the broader community a chance to look in and actually see dancers working on their craft in the studio as they pass.
The ballet is all about grace, but behind the grace lies incredible strength. The building is designed to celebrate both of those qualities, Schottelkotte said.
The foundation will have a concrete first floor, expressing the strength and stability of dance. The foundation will hold up additional levels of lightweight steel, with bright and airy dance studios.
The center’s eight studios for the Ballet’s professional company, academy and community programs will double its current four studios. Of the two larger ones, the Rhonda and Larry A. Sheakley Premier Studio, will be 3,600 square feet with seating for intimate performances and rehearsal observation.
Six other studios will provide a mix of medium and small spaces, more than doubling the Ballet’s current studio footprint. The facility will include a dancer lounge for the company dancers next to an upgraded dressing and changing area.
The center also will add a parent lounge for those waiting while their children dance.
The new location will help the Ballet with one of its biggest challenges. The Walnut Hills location is expected to provide more than 150 parking spaces, double what it has in the West End.
The center also will include a roughly 3,000-square-foot Mercy Health Orthopedics and Sports Rehabilitation at Cincinnati Ballet. The Ballet has a small space in its current facility where trainers and therapists can work with dancers, but Altman said the new space will make it a “world-class center” for physical therapy and training.
More than learning to dance
Debbie Brant, board chair of the Ballet, knows first hand the impact it can have: Her daughter danced there for eight years. She learned to appreciate dance all while maintaining good grades, which prepared her to start this fall at Dartmouth College.
“This created structure for her,” Brant said. “Even when she decided not to dance professionally, it didn’t take away from the commitment to the program here.”
The Ballet’s CincyDance! is a free program in selected schools that provides dance classes to thousands of third-graders. Morgan said ballet teaches children discipline and gives them the ability to be recognized and supported.
“Dance is really powerful, a powerful form of communication,” Morgan said. “We have seen lives change.”
The Ballet also has Ballet Moves therapeutic classes in partnership with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital that make dance education accessible for students with three unique abilities: Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. That number will grow to more than 10. One studio will be outfitted with a device to help those who can’t stand on their own.
A new facility will help Cincinnati Ballet attract talent, both on and off the dance floor. Morgan said choreographers will want to come to Cincinnati to work in a dance center like the one the Ballet will build. Schottelkotte said dancers who have viewed 3D renderings of the studios said they were mesmerized by what they saw.
“It’s going to be iconic,” Morgan said.
The Ballet’s summer programs attract dance students from around the world. Other ballet companies across the U.S. offer summer programs, so the new space will serve as a recruiting tool.
“A new expanded facility will go a long way to growing that program,” Brant said.
The new center will be less than a half-mile from the Art Museum and Playhouse in the Park. Altman said they are working with Eden Park officials and the art museum on the $7 million ArtClimb that will come down the hill to Gilbert Avenue.
“Two things about Cincinnati that really set us apart from other cities are our arts institutions and our parks system — marrying the two with our world-class Ballet’s move to beautiful Eden Park is a home run,” said councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld.
Chris Dobrozsi, vice president of real estate development at Neyer Properties, said the Ballet will help activate this corridor as it brings hundreds of students to the academy.
“Training future generations is why we love having it as our site,” Dobrozsi said. “It will be collaborative with the other arts organizations that exist nearby.”
The Ballet wants the facility to be more than just a dance center. Altman said people will not only experience ballet there but be able to use it as a community gathering place. Altman envisions opening the large studio on summer nights when the public can come and watch a movie while instructors teach dance moves.
To Brant, the coming investment and its visible placement along one of the region’s most-traveled corridors speaks to the importance Cincinnati has placed on the arts.
“It’s huge that Cincinnati has the wherewithal to not only keep the arts, but to grow them and keep them internationally recognized,” Brant said.