By Gary Gray
A once-vacant lot off West State of Franklin Road shielded from view by construction partitions now includes a large, rounded hole – the spot where sounds from the James C. and Mary B. Martin Center for the Arts orchestra pit will soon resonate.
The contour is both a milestone and a reminder that partnerships and collusion can make things happen. Big things. There now is clear visual evidence of progress after four years of fundraising, consulting, discussing, proposing, designing and redesigning.
Ground was broken on East Tennessee State University’s coming $53.3 million performing arts center in September, and it is on track for completion at the end of 2019. Funding came from state appropriations, private donations and the City of Johnson City.
“The footprint is now set, and nothing has been added or removed,” ETSU Chief of Staff Jeremy Ross told The News & Neighbor. “After decades of dreaming of enhanced cultural offerings, it’s now exciting to see the result of over 500 donors, Johnson City, Washington County and others who helped make this a reality, begin to see where the foundation of this partnership is being laid.
“Construction always has its share of unknowns, but we’re about halfway through with sitework. The grading has been underway since we broke ground. We expect the steel framing to begin going up in March, and that is when you will really start to see it go.”
In 2016, ETSU officials learned construction costs for the architect’s original proposal were higher than expected. The university had hoped to include spaces within the center for its art, bluegrass and aerial dance programs, but the price prohibited this move.
Tennessee’s State Building Commission approved revised schematics for the new center last May.
“We made an effort to put as many programs in the center as possible, but costs did not allow that,” Ross said. “No program was eliminated, and they do have spaces to utilize. They have a home.”
A memorandum of understanding between Johnson City and ETSU was fleshed out first, an agreement in which the City Commission approved nearly $10 million for help with land, construction and other considerations. The state also approved the agreement.
The funds provided the financial wherewithal to build a 1,200-seat main auditorium – nearly double that of the initial plan. The center is being constructed on a vacant lot adjacent to the Millennium Centre and will include rehearsal areas for chorus, percussion and other instruments and shops for scene and costume production.
A smaller, 200-seat recital hall will be built on the east side of the building and the main auditorium will be situated in the center. University and city officials are confident the larger auditorium will attract high-quality national shows with a cultural bent that have been lacking in Johnson City.
“The performing arts center project is something that has been contemplated by our community for well over two decades, and working in conjunction with the university will enable us to benefit the university as well as the public in general,” City Manager Pete
The Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville seats 1,150, and rock and country groups, traveling ballets and other stage shows are routinely booked there. A caveat in the agreement between the city and university makes available at least 20 dates per year for community events and at least 10 events each year that would appeal to the public.
Ross said ETSU is working toward the potential acquisition of the Millennium Centre from the city. The State Building Commission instructed the university to complete the design on the fine arts facility first before making a concerted effort to obtain the Millennium Centre.
“We agreed, through the memorandum of understanding, to explore the acquisition,” he said. “We are talking with our deans and others, and we are working on a strategic master plan regarding potential ownership that we ultimately will present to the state.”
The state will need to know why the building is needed, as well as its condition and its dimensions and specifications. ETSU already has programs in the Millennium Centre – the digital media center, for example. The potential learning, research and economic development possibilities are also factors being looked at.
“I think our programs will grow,” Ross said. “I really believe we will look back in five years and see that Founders Park, the coming West Walnut Street Corridor, the hiking and biking trails and downtown growth will have contributed to the university’s success. That success, in turn, will nourish the arts center and the region.”
Knoxville’s Denark Construction is the project’s construction manager, and the company will choreograph the various contractors and their schedules as work progresses.