Johnson City Power Board to give ETSU $500K for new arts center

Nathan Baker • Oct 25, 2013 at 12:19 PM

Johnson City’s electric utility will contribute $500,000 to help build East Tennessee State University’s $38 million fine and performing arts center, a pledge that the company’s leaders said will help drive economic development in the region.

The Johnson City Power Board’s board of directors voted unanimously Thursday to approve a recommendation from CEO Jeff Dykes to commit the money from the JCPB’s underground/economic development fund.

“When you look at the growth at ETSU in the past four years, we have picked up new commercial buildings on campus,” Chair Jenny Brock said. “In looking at helping the university get this thing out of the ground and up and going, it’s good business for us, and it’s good business for the citizens in our community.

“The minute they open their doors, people are going to be in town spending their money, restaurants will be popping up, which means new customers for us, so I think this is one of those projects we look at and say, ‘Does this fit our mandate from the TVA for us to become involved in it?’ ”

Jonesborough Mayor and JCPB board member Kelly Wolfe agreed the destination theaters and instruction space planned for the center will be a boon to the local economy.

“I think it’s a very widely held and accepted notion that economic development isn’t just buying land for an industrial park anymore,” he said. “I think the quality of life component that this performing arts center represents is just as important as buying available land for industry, it’s just as important for utilities being present on site or having a shell built. It’s just as important as just about anything else you could do in that process.”

A similar pledge from the Power Board in 2006 for the building of ETSU’s Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy was met with opposition from then-City Commissioner Pete Paduch, who said the $50,000-per-year contribution violated the company’s policy forbidding charitable donations.

Then, and now, JCPB’s attorney Tom McKee said the money can be considered an investment in economic development, and is perfectly legal.

“I see nothing wrong with this proposal at all, to start with,” McKee told the board. “In fact, it’s consistent with what we’ve done before. This is not a private organization like the Medical Center, it’s a state deal with strong economic development connotations to it.”

In making the proposal, which will likely be a lump sum instead of the yearly contributions still being made to the pharmacy school, Dykes said the money would be earmarked for energy expenses for the arts center.

“One of the strings we’re really putting out there … is we want to be involved from day one on the design,” the CEO said. “We want to be there and say ‘When you’re doing lining, here are some great way of putting it in that’s going to reduce your cost, when you’re building the shell and putting your heating and cooling systems in, here are some things that are going to reduce your costs.’ ”

The Power Board’s commitment puts fundraising for the arts center at slightly more than $5.5 million, about 58 percent of the goal of $9.5 million.

The college expects to receive about $28.5 million from the state for the project, which will likely be built adjacent to the Millennium Centre on West State of Franklin Road across from ETSU’s campus.

Negotiations between the school and Johnson City’s Public Building Authority for the intended land, know as Lot 1, are still ongoing, but officials say a deal could be announced soon.

The board voted unanimously to commit the money to the project, with new member, B. J. King abstaining. King, who attended her first meeting Thursday, is an employee of ETSU, serving as senior associate vice president for finance and administration.

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