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Millennium Centre 'still in business;' Building Authority waiting to determine future

Nathan Baker • Oct 28, 2015 at 7:45 PM

The prospect of Johnson City turning control of the Millennium Centre over to East Tennessee State University is apparently serious enough to give those overseeing the convention and meeting center pause.

The members of the Public Building Authority, the body appointed by the City Commission to manage operations at the city-owned facility, seemed uncertain of what to expect for the center’s future, as city leaders talk of transferring its ownership, or at least operations.

“A lot of things are happening simultaneously,” Public Building Authority Chair Jon Smith said Wednesday. “We’ve heard of possibly moves by ETSU, but at this point, nothing has been clarified.

“I want to stress that the Millennium Centre is still in business. We have not been informed of any impending changes that will cause our status to be altered at this time.”

ETSU Chief of Staff Jeremy Ross said university administration has been in talks with the city for more than a year to take over the convention center’s operations.

With the design of the school’s fine and performing arts center — on land next to the Millennium Centre — set to be revealed Thursday, and ETSU’s multi-year lease of a portion of the center for its digital media program, taking control of the building may be a natural progression.

“We have a need for large classrooms for departments from music to business,” Ross said, indicating the auditoriums in the Millennium Centre may fill those needs well. “We would have to take time to look at what would be the best use for that space and what’s the most adaptable.”

The Millennium Centre generates revenue from events held on its grounds, but the city has subsidized its operation since nearly the opening of the facility. In the past few years, the money from the sale of land along State of Franklin Road surrounding the center, which was owned by the city, has supported its expenses.

But very few plots of land are left. ETSU is expected to buy one for the arts center, and another, named Lot 8, has been slow to sell because of site access problems.

Another owner would free the city of some of those costs, although it would still be responsible for repaying the bond on the building.

Johnson City leaders are also considering a multimillion-dollar investment in the university’s arts center to enlarge the seating capacity of building’s main auditorium from the 750 seats approved by the state to 1,200, which officials believe will give the community a better chance at securing larger traveling shows.

Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin has been a supporter of a city contribution for the facility, and has said it’s an issue he’d like to see resolved before he steps down from his mayoral seat in the coming weeks.

One funding mechanism proposed for the contribution is the 2-percent increase in the city’s hotel-motel tax, put in place earlier this year.

Ross said he expects the City Commission to begin discussing the Millennium Centre proposal in earnest in the next two to four weeks.

The Tennessee Board of Regents, which would need to review any agreement struck, is on board with the college’s and city’s plans, he said.

Email Nathan Baker at nbaker@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jcpressbaker or on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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