By Jeff Keeling
Whether or not Johnson City would benefit from having an upsized East Tennessee State University fine and performing arts center (FPAC) off campus didn’t seem to be in question as city commissioners met with a consultant last Thursday. Nor did commissioners doubt the city had ongoing revenues available to pay for that upsizing of the FPAC’s main performance space from 750 seats to 1,200.
What commissioners’ ultimate approval or disapproval of an estimated $7.9 million to enlarge the FPAC will hinge on, it appears, is details of a usage agreement with ETSU – including how the university will handle booking shows and how many community events the center can host.
Adding 450 additional seats to the FPAC would probably add nearly $8 million to the building’s current $40.6 million price tag, architect Douglas McCarty told commissioners meeting with him and ETSU’s Jeremy Ross. That marked the first time city commissioners got a specific number – as specific as possible prior to actual bids – since talk about extra city funding for the project first surfaced more than 18 months ago.
While they left the meeting with plenty of remaining unanswered questions, a majority of commissioners indicated they were open to taking the FPAC’s main performance theater from the state-funded 750 seats to 1,200. Their hope? That the additional capacity would put the theater into a seating capacity range sufficient to draw Broadway shows, concerts and other performances, boosting visitor revenues and making Johnson City a more attractive location for new jobs and investment.
ETSU already has approval for an FPAC with three performance spaces, the largest at 750 seats, with about one quarter of that $40.6 million cost coming from local sources.
Commissioners almost universally agreed that such an opportunity is rare and well worth considering. Much of it could be funded over a 30-year period through 1 percent of the city’s now 7 percent hotel-motel tax. That 1 percent will bring in an estimated $230,000 a year at current lodging rates, and other debts due to be paid off within several years could free up money to make up the remainder of the investment, City Manager Pete Peterson said.
He added that a new center would be the kind of “quality of life” enhancement that help cities attract new residents and investment. Commissioner Jenny Brock agreed, and called the partnership opportunity, “a window that’s open here that we’re never going to have again.
“If we did want to become a cultural center, it would cost a lot more than $8 million if we wanted to do it on our own, and so I think we have a philosophical decision to make.”
The questions came in where they generally have – about just how much use the city would get of the space for community events, and how many non-ETSU shows the university would book per year in order to drive the economic impact the city wants in exchange for such an investment.
“Is ETSU prepared to subsidize the shows?” asked Jeff Banyas, who later said he supported the investment in theory but wanted to protect the city’s interests.
“We’re going to book shows that we think are going to be the most successful,” Ross answered.
“We have an expectation that there will be a certain level of show that comes to this facility if we put the additional seats in,” Banyas replied. “I think we both need to be on the same page – I think we’re talking on different pages here.”
“Before I would vote to spend $8 million, I would want to know exactly what the details are,” he added. “Who we’re going to go after and who is going to subsidize it, how many times a year it’s going to be, what’s considered a city event.”
In reply, Ross said, “I think 90 percent of what you said we can work through.”
Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and Commissioner Jenny Brock both appeared ready to commit the funding. Near the end of the meeting, Banyas expressed his support – with his caveats – as did Commissioner David Tomita.
“I’m willing to take a look at it. I’m very open. I think we’ve got a mechanism to fund it. As long as we hammer these details out before the first check is written and we’ve got a mechanism in that contract that if what is happening ceases to happen, then I’m good with moving forward.”
Building design will begin soon. ETSU needs the commission to approve funding – which could be contingent on later passage of a memorandum of understanding outlining usage and performance booking details – at one of its next couple meetings, slated for Aug. 20 and Sept. 3.