By Jeff Keeling
The Johnson City Power Board kicked in half a million dollars months ago. The Washington County Commission committed $1 million last month. The Washington County Economic Development Council is expected to approve $250,000 tomorrow.
With East Tennessee State University nearing its $10 million matching requirement for a new $40 million Fine and Performing Arts Center (FPAC), elected leaders in Johnson City face a big question. Do they match their local government counterparts in Jonesborough and kick in $1 million in taxpayer money? Or with the FPAC likely to be built across State of Franklin Road from campus at Millennium Park – and talk of a larger main theater still alive – do they take a calculated risk and commit $5 million-plus to help ETSU expand that main theater in hopes it can pay long-term regional dividends?
Whatever the final decision, it is likely to come by the City Commission’s final 2014 meeting Dec. 18. ETSU Chief of Staff Jeremy Ross, who has been President Brian Noland’s right hand man in FPAC fundraising and planning, says the university hopes to have its $10 million match committed by the end of the year. Once the legislature meets and the governor starts preparing a budget, that work will include prioritizing which higher education building projects will move off of the waiting list and into development.
“It is our hope that if we have our match in hand while those decisions are being made, we would get priority,” Ross told News and Neighbor last week
Ross said the Tennessee Board of Regents is expected Thursday to approve ETSU’s latest master plan, which includes two potential FPAC sites. The original location is on the east end of campus, near the intersections of University Parkway and State of Franklin. For months, though, Noland has expressed his preference for the Millennium Park site, which would include the 3.6-acre “Lot 1” currently owned by Bank of Tennessee, as well as adjacent property home to a Bank of Tennessee branch. Recently, talk has also surfaced of an easement allowing ETSU to use some of the Millennium Centre’s grounds, which would allow the FPAC to be sited very close to the center.
With the Millennium Centre able to serve alcohol, the proximity is seen as a potential boon to both the FPAC and the center – particularly if the FPAC’s main performance space grows from the state’s standard design of 750 seats to something larger than that. That is a big ‘if,’ and one that will depend on the city’s willingness to kick in millions of dollars. Such a financial outlay is a reason Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and fellow commissioners will meet ETSU leaders sometime before the commission’s first December meeting for a frank discussion about the potential benefits and risks to such a move.
“If we’re going to talk about a commitment of even half a million dollars, let alone five million dollars, we need to feel pretty sure that it’s a wise investment of taxpayer money,” Van Brocklin said last week. What ETSU hopes to see is either a $500,000 match commitment and a $5 million commitment toward a larger main theater, or a $1 million match commitment if city commissioners don’t feel they can justify the larger project.
Commissioners want some quantitative easing (of their minds)
“The economic impact will not be as great going from 750 seats to 1,250 or 1,200. The City of Johnson City will have to ask, ‘is it worth investing dollars with the idea that we will have a better quality of life, more cultural amenities, and this will appeal to companies that we’re recruiting, and have an economic impact?’” Jeremy Ross
Ross is tasked with helping lead discussions with City Commissioners about the prospect of a FPAC with a theater larger than 750 seats. Those discussions stretch back to December 2013, when Noland suggested at a commission agenda review meeting that an off-campus center with 1,000 or more seats could benefit not just ETSU, but Johnson City and the entire region by attracting off-Broadway shows and other entertainment not currently making stops in the region.
“Our ability to say, ‘Anything that you would find in Greenville (S.C.), Columbus or Charlotte – you will find here,’ is a selling point as you try to attract business and industry to a region,” Noland said back then.
Commissioners were intrigued, but would like something approaching proof of that assertion. They have asked for an economic impact study to quantify the returns their investment might yield. The desired location would keep the biggest remaining Millennium Centre lot off the tax rolls, and would create water detention and traffic issues that wouldn’t be the city’s problem in an on-campus building, so commissioners also must consider additional up front costs and potential lost tax revenue from those considerations.
“I won’t feel comfortable, and I’m not sure other commissioners will, pushing ahead unless some numbers show that it truly is going to be the benefit it seems it would be as we’ve looked at it theoretically,” Van Brocklin said.
When it comes to numbers, Ross said the biggest quantifiable boost will come from the new FPAC’s construction, whether it is built on campus or elsewhere, as ETSU attracts more students into its arts programs. Jon Smith of ETSU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research has found each new student adds slightly more than $65,000 in spending to the local economy.
Ross said the new FPAC should create a net growth of more than 100 students – an “aerial dance” program is in the planning stages with 35 students projected – and, “conservatively, that could have an economic impact of $5 million a year.”
It’s in the stretch to a larger facility, with some community events and some non-ETSU moneymaking shows, that the city’s potential investment grows larger and the economic numbers get more speculative, Ross acknowledged. Smith’s study from that angle must eliminate the prospect of events that would simply shift from other venues around the region to a new center. Ross said Smith is studying other programs and venues of similar size in university cities near Johnson City’s population. Cal-State Fullerton is one.
“At its best, it looks like the direct impact will be about 300,000 new dollars annually,” Ross said. He did cite a Portland (Ore.) Development Commission review of economic development studies showing that next to a qualified labor force “quality of life, including cultural amenities, was the most important factor in the location of business using highly skilled workers.”
Ross added that the discussion of a potentially larger FPAC has been requested by the city, calling the talks “more of a discussion, not necessarily a push.
“I believe there are clear benefits to drawing in additional cultural events that we can’t anywhere in the region now … but if the city’s going to make that investment, they need to be convinced.”
On the programming end, Van Brocklin said, “we need some assurances you’re going to be bringing in things that are different, things that are going to be popular, and things that are going to provide a public benefit.”
What about community events?
ETSU will own whatever facility is built, and Van Brocklin also said commissioners want to be sure the community will have some use of it in exchange for any larger contribution to its construction. For his part, he’d like to be “pretty certain I can get 35 days. The public would have a right to be pretty unhappy with us if we’re not factoring those sort of things in.”
Ross said “there’s no model” for such an arrangement, but, “the spirit from the governor’s office in our mind is to be able to build more with less.”
That could mean an ETSU-produced show one weekend and an off-Broadway production the next, with a large community concert in between.
“Whatever we create is going to have to be invented and created together,” he added. “I believe, though, that unless (the state) senses ETSU is detracting from students’ education, we will have flexibility to make those decisions.”
Theoretically, Van Brocklin said, there is no reason the larger partnership can’t work.
“I think building the larger performing arts center is very important to the community. Money always ends up being the deciding factor.
“We’re looking more and more at public-private partnerships in anything we do as a community, so we certainly want to explore the public-public type of partnerships that allow the taxpayer dollars to be spent a little more efficiently.”
Van Brocklin said he gets the sense Noland’s efforts to enhance such partnerships aren’t just “public cheerleading.” The recent completion of a contract for ETSU to use the city’s Freedom Hall for basketball is one example, he said.
“I believe there is substance behind it. I think Brian understands community well, and he’s very geared towards community on a lot of different levels.”