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Report: Tulsa PAC is $25M out of compliance with latest ADA requirements

Max Bryan
Tulsa Performing Arts CEO Mark Frie speaks to Tulsa city councilors and officials on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in the Chapman Music Hall. If the center were to undergo renovation, it would be required to meet the 2008 Americans with Disabilities Act requirements — and be about $25 million out of compliance with the federal law, according to a report.

The Tulsa Performing Arts Center isn't technically out of compliance with the federal law. But if it were to do a renovation — something its CEO says is needed to keep up with industry standards — it would become millions of dollars out of compliance.

If the Tulsa Performing Arts Center is to upgrade to industry standard — something its stakeholders have been meaning to do for years — it will be required to meet the most current Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

The cost to do that? About $25 million. And that's only about one-eighth the cost of the entire renovation.

"For a long time, the people who were staffing the PAC, from a leadership standpoint, never pushed as hard as they needed to to say, 'Hey, we've got to do this maintenance. And then, I think, on the other side of that, there's been periods of time where the elected officials who made those decisions weren't prioritizing those decisions, or the arts. You know, there's a lot of competing needs," said city councilor Lori Decter Wright. Wright is a trained opera singer and is a member of the Tulsa PAC Trust.

On Jan. 4, Tulsa PAC CEO Mark Frie described issues the PAC has that need to be fixed to bring up to what he and architects at The McIntosh Group say is "industry standard."

The upgrades amount to more than $200 million of backstage improvements, sewage remediation and up-to-date ADA compliance. It would take up to two and a half years to complete, Frie said.

Within that estimate is the roughly $25 million identified in the study as ADA issues. It's outlined in 500-page book Frie calls his "thunk book" because of the sound it makes when he drops it.

Mayor G.T. Bynum said the PAC has one of the greatest amounts of deferred maintenance of any city-owned facility.

The PAC's shortfalls come as councilors consider placing a $115 million construction bond to repair failing city facilities before voters. It’s currently unclear how much money the PAC would receive from the bond — Bynum is focused on the police and fire headquarters as well, Tulsa World reported.

To be sure, the PAC isn't technically out of ADA compliance — it was built in 1977, meaning it must adhere to the legislation's original standards passed in 1990. But because it doesn't adhere to ADA's updated language passed in 2008, the McIntosh Group says the facility has bathroom stalls that are too narrow, an HVAC system that needs upgrades and a lack of ramps throughout the facility.

If the PAC were to undergo any significant renovation, it would be required to meet the 2008 requirements.

“They can’t feel good about saying that, because I can’t feel good about hearing that," said Emeka Nnaka, who uses a wheelchair because he's paralyzed from the chest down, said about the PAC only being compliant with the 1990 requirements. Nnaka is a former city council candidate.

Decter Wright says Frie's straightforward approach to these deficiencies has been better than past PAC CEO's, whose lack of candor got the facility into its current situation. Frie has overseen the PAC since 2017.

“All along, my number one goal is to keep people safe, but to also give people the best experience possible, whether it’s a ticket buyer or an artist," Frie said.

'I should feel just as important as any other patron'

At the front of house and in the Chapman Music Hall, the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's issues may not be immediately recognizable to people without disabilities. But Frie said these areas are included in the report.

On the tour, Frie pointed out that the orchestra level of seating has no center aisle. He said this is would be a safety hazard in emergencies like an active shooter situation.

There's also only one row of ADA-accessible seating on the orchestra level. Federal law currently requires ADA accessibility for every ticket sold.

"If I wanted to sell a VIP seat for rows one through four, I can try to get away with it, but I can also get slapped with the threat of a lawsuit because I'm not giving that person in a wheelchair the same accessibility as someone who can just walk down to those seats," said Frie.

“I should feel just as important as any other patron at the PAC," said Nnaka.

Frie said the PAC has "a lot of trip-and-falls" because it wasn't a thought when the built, even though the PAC didn't have any pending litigation as of Jan. 10.

The backstage area has a handful of changing rooms geared to hold up to six people, but preferably three. Because of the limited number of rooms, the PAC has been holding up to 12 people per dressing room.

Max Bryan
Tulsa city councilor Phil Lakin walks through one of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center changing rooms on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. The rooms sometimes have to hold up to four times recommended capacity for shows, said PAC CEO Mark Frie.

Decter Wright said shows that have significantly more of one gender than another creates a dilemma for changing.

"You now have many performers who are gender-fluid, and we certainly don't have the capacity to handle that," Frie said.

The PAC also has plumbing issues. Frie said he's had instances where the sewage has leaked onto cars — and onto patrons.

Backstage doesn't have a normal elevator, and getting to most levels backstage requires multiple levels of stairs.

When TV personality Martha Stewart spoke at the PAC in 2022, she had to use their freight elevator. She also had to be carried up a ramp because she had a leg injury at the time.

Stewart and Food Network personality Alton Brown both commented on the backstage area when they came through last year.

"A lot of our headliners — our big, big headliners — they get one stop in Oklahoma. And as someone who used to be on the road, there is a marked difference between a backstage area that makes me feel welcome and one that doesn't," he said.

Finding the money

Even in its entirety, the proposed construction bond wouldn't cover the entire cost of the PAC renovation. But Frie says it wouldn't have to if it's renovated the same way it was built.

The money is already available from the city's scrapped plans for a Public Safety District — it just needs to be approved by voters. Bynum told the Tulsa World that part of the Jan. 4 tour was to determine if it made more sense to fix the current police and fire headquarters, or to build a new center that serves as the headquarters as both departments.

Even if the PAC gets money from the bond, Frie suggested a public-private partnership to renovate it. The center's original construction was paid for by a fund of matching public and private dollars.

“It’s exciting to think about what the possibilities are," he said.

Decter Wright says the PAC is "a worthy investment" to upgrade. It generates an estimated $100 million in economic impact for the city, Frie said.

Nnaka said he would have to see the PAC have a detailed plan before voting for the bond package. But he still believes the PAC needs to get serious about fixing its deficiencies.

“You’re going to face that, especially if you’re a public building like that," Nnaka said of the deficiencies. "You may as well get in front of it.”

Max Bryan
Tulsa Performing Arts CEO Mark Frie speaks to Tulsa city councilors and officials on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, from the PAC's only backstage ramp. Frie said PAC staff had to carry TV personality Martha Stewart on the ramp when she stopped at the center with an injured leg.

Max Bryan is a news anchor and reporter for KWGS. A Tulsa native, Bryan worked at newspapers throughout Arkansas and in Norman before coming home to "the most underrated city in America." Several of Bryan's news stories have either led to or been cited in changes both in the public and private sectors.