The old Jackson Theater building in downtown Jonesborough. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
The town of Jonesborough has received an informal and indirect notice that the Appalachian Regional Commission has approved a $270,000 grant for its purchase of the Jackson Theater.
While there has been no official confirmation of the grant’s award, Town Administrator Bob Browning said Thursday the office of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., advised the town in January that the first of two grants Jonesborough is seeking for the former theater on Main Street has been approved by the ARC.
“We checked with state Department of Economic Development and it’s their understanding that it has been approved as well,” Browning said. “It comes down to them. ... They had not received any confirmation, just the same verbal communication we received.”
According to Browning, neither the town nor the state has received any word on a separate $450,000 ARC grant for the theater’s renovation recommended for approval by Gov. Bill Haslam in July 2013.
The application for the $270,000 ARC grant was initially filed with the agency by the International Storytelling Center prior to that organization's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 2011 and was originally purposed for construction of a 300-seat pavilion at Storytelling Park to be used by ISC as a summer performing arts venue.
After the ISC’s bankruptcy, the town resubmitted the grant application for matching funding to purchase the old theater for use as a 400-seat year-round performing arts venue.
The tax appraisal on the building is $485,000 and its owner, Wesley Wilson, has priced the property at about $500,000.
Browning said the town’s match of the $270,000 grant may be obtained through a capital outlay note or a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan that would also provide funding for other town projects. “It’s a 50 percent grant so the (total) $540,000 would cover our need,” Browning said.
Jonesborough’s application for a $450,000 ARC grant to renovate the building was recommended for ARC approval by Haslam after $500,000 in funding for the project included in the governor’s supplemental state budget proposal was axed by the state House of Representatives in its final budget vote in April.
While some political observers saw the House action as retribution for an unexpected committee vote by state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, that killed the wine in grocery stores bill in last year’s General Assembly, others questioned the fairness of funding a restoration project in one legislative district and not in others. Hill attributed the House move to policy differences rather than political retaliation.
The Jackson Theater renovation is one of 19 infrastructure and community development projects Haslam has recommended for ARC funding to improve economic development statewide.
While the governor’s recommendation has raised optimism in Jonesborough that funding for the project will be forthcoming, Browning said Thursday the timing of ARC grant awards can be impacted by many governmental processes, including approval of the federal budget.
Jonesborough’s plan to purchase and restore the theater has been in the works for several years and is based on a tourism development study that recommends the theater’s renovation for use as a venue for touring musical, dance and theater productions to expand on Jonesborough’s already successful Music on the Square and repertory theater programs.
The cost of restoring the building is estimated at $1.6 million, for a total project cost of more than $2 million.