By Jeff Keeling
Talk of East Tennessee State University taking over operations of the Millennium Centre – which the City of Johnson City subsidizes to the tune of more than $600,000 annually – has reached a new level. The city’s longest-tenured commissioner, Jeff Banyas, told News and Neighbor: “It seems to be one of those concepts that’s good for everybody that rarely happens. I really don’t see a down side.”
As the City Commission prepares to make a decision on whether and how much to invest in bumping up the size of ETSU’s Fine and Performing Arts Center (FPAC), a draft proposal from the university appears to provide a path that could help fund that investment.
In an Oct. 8 memo to Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin, ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland references, “many conversations” regarding the city’s desire to turn the Centre’s ownership and operations over to ETSU. The memo says ETSU leadership has discussed the option with the Tennessee Board of Regents, and, with TBR included, “would like to immediately commence the discussions and processes needed to transfer ownership and operation of the Millennium Centre to ETSU.”
Sodexo currently operates the Centre. Longtime General Manager Ken Misterly recently left his post for a job in Kingsport. The latest fiscal year’s subsidy was more than $650,000 – easily enough to cover debt payments were the city to invest $8 million plus interest to bring the FPAC main hall’s seating total from 750 to 1,250.
Banyas said the city would want to maintain some access to the event space on the second floor. ETSU’s full access to the first-floor classrooms, he said, could save the university significant sums as compared to building something on campus. He also said he would expect ETSU’s overhead for running the center to be lower than the city’s subsidy, as ETSU has its own food service operations.
The city would likely continue paying debt on the building through its payoff in 2023.
Should a deal materialize, Banyas said, “the university all of a sudden has all of this classroom space and meeting space. The city’s not paying the subsidy any more and the university has just taken over the operation. It’s an example of a situation where everybody wins and I don’t see any losers.”