ETSU president, former presidents consider options for performing arts center building

Nathan Baker • Nov 25, 2014 at 2:39 PM

For a meeting with city commissioners, East Tennessee State University’s former President Paul Stanton, Chief of Staff Jeremy Ross and current President Brian Noland took on the roles of the past, present and future of a fine and performing arts center planned by the college.

At the informational meeting, the university officials presented two main options for the combined teaching and performance venue, one smaller with less of a community footprint, the other substantially larger with a greater effect on the city and the region.

But increasing the size of the main performance hall from the 750 seats approved by the state to the 1,250 university and local officials believe it would take to make the center a regionally important resource would require at least a $6 million investment from Johnson City.

“The reason we’ve been at this for a year is we’ve heard from the community, and the community wants more than just a building for ETSU,” Noland told the gathered commissioners. “If that’s not a dream shared by the region, that’s OK. We’re going to build an arts center one way or the other, but what type of building are we going to build is the question we have before us.”

The president’s preferred iteration of the arts center, and the reason for the called meeting, is a facility with a main hall with 1,250 seats, smaller practice spaces and classrooms built adjacent to the city’s Millennium Centre across West State of Franklin Road from the rest of the Johnson City campus.

According to ETSU’s economic estimates, the construction of the center could pump $43 million into the economy in terms of materials and equipment investment, add $16 million in labor income and support 413 jobs in the first year.

After it’s built, the 1,250-seat venue could contribute $281,000 in impact, $96,000 for labor and $18,000 in state and local taxes each year.

The facility’s teaching aspect, which will be the same regardless of the main hall’s size, could bring 120 new students with additional and expanded programs and nearly $16 million into the regional economy by year five, then $5.6 million each year thereafter, ETSU Economics professor Jon Smith figures.

Town-gown cooperation could further solidify the relationship between the city, the county and ETSU, and lead to shared benefits in the future, Noland said.

“We have other options available, but I think if we were to do so, that’s something that 30, 40 or 50 years from now, people would ask ‘Why did we not make the investment as a community to do things right at the front end?’ ” Noland posed to the commissioners.

As a model for the shared facility, ETSU looked to the Clayton Center for the Arts, built four years ago by Maryville College, the city of Maryville and Alcoa. That facility, with an 1,196-seat grand hall, garnered a $12 million contribution from the two municipalities.

For it’s part, the college wouldn’t come to the table empty handed, under the original scope of the project, the state will likely commit more than $30 million and ETSU’s fundraising efforts will add $10.2 if the goal is reached.

Noland said the college would also take up the cost of operating the facility, while booking acts for it and other publicly owned venues would ideally be handled by a third party contractor.

If the Johnson City commissioners were to approve public funding for the center, a vote for which Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin hopes to fast-track for the Dec. 16 commission meeting, they would join the Washington County Commission, which pledged $1 million last month, and the Johnson City Power Board, which approved $500,000 for the center more than a year ago.

Last week, the Washington County Economic Development Council pledged $500,000 to the arts initiative, half of which is contingent upon the plans for the center being increased to at least 1,250 seats in the main performance hall.

But the rapidly approaching February deadline to begin design work, when the size of the final facility must be known, could hurt its chances of growing.

The City Commission originally hoped to have legislative approval for a new hotel/motel tax to partially fund its part of the project, but the General Assembly will likely not have made a decision on the proposition before design work begins.

City Manager Pete Peterson said legislators have voiced their intentions to carry the issue forward during the upcoming session, but the arts center decision will have to be made first.

“You need to make this decision based on known resources,” Peterson said. “It’s better for us to make our own decision at home, and have this option we never counted on, because we can always go back and regroup. But if we plan on committing collections from this new source of revenue, and then it’s not approved, that’s not a situation we want to put ourselves in.”

Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBaker. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

Ed's note: An earlier version of this story quoted a $116 million construction labor impact from a slide during ETSU's presentation Monday. That figure was incorrect, the actual estimate is $16 million. It has been corrected in the article.

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