The Washington County Commission Monday voted to commit $1 million from the county’s general fund balance to the East Tennessee State University Fine and Performing Arts Center initiative. The county will pay the funds to the university in ten annual installments of $100,000.
The university must raise $10 million in order to receive $30 million in state matching funds to pay for the $40 million proposed center. With the county’s commitment added to the tally, the university has garnered $7.3 million.
“There are a number of other large gifts that are in the queue,” Noland told the commission. “It is our intent that by the end of the upcoming state legislative session we will have the funds in hand to allow us to receive the match.”
Current plans for the facility include a concert hall with a seating capacity between 750 and 1,200, a smaller recital hall, a black box theatre, plus classroom and instruction space.
Two sites are being considered for the facility. Noland has expressed a preference to build the center on a plot of land known as “Lot 1” adjacent to the Millennium Centre. “We were authorized by the state to purchase that property last week and are now in negotiations with the private party that owns it,” Noland said. The other option is to build the center on the east side of campus where a parking lot now exists.
Noland promised commissioners that beyond the economic development benefits of the center, the county would get a return on its investment. “This is a building not just for our students, but for the region as a whole,” said Noland. “We see this as a community centerpiece, which is in line with values we have for all our facilities. We do not own any of our buildings. The people of the state of Tennessee own our buildings. We’d like to open those facilities up for broad purposes and community use.”
Supporters of the initiative had hoped for a near-unanimous county commission vote in favor of the donation. Such a vote would have sent a clear message to other regional governing bodies that large donations to the program would be politically safe, even in a time of shrinking local government budgets. The final tally in favor of the donation was 17-5 with one abstention. Commissioners Danny Edens, Mike Ford, Sam Humphries, Steve Light and Robbie Tester cast dissenting votes, and all but Light voiced their respective reasons for doing so.
Tester told Noland, “Folks can voluntarily donate to this. So it doesn’t make sense to me why we would essentially force our constituents to donate to something that they can voluntarily donate toward. I feel I have to ask whether it is a legitimate function of government to force your constituents to have to donate toward something. We can choose to give $1 million to ETSU, and I have nothing against ETSU in particular, but there’s probably a ton of other people that could come ask us for $1 million too.”
Edens said, “I feel like education starts at the local level. Our school board was in desperate need of money, which we funded what I felt was a fair amount, but they needed more. They were required to make cuts. I don’t know how that’s going to affect students here at the local level before they get to your level. We’ve told them no any number of times because we supposedly didn’t have the money…I agree with Mr. Tester. I have serious questions.
“How do I answer that phone call from a teacher that says, ‘I didn’t get a raise’?” asked Edens. “When we asked every department head to make cuts in the budgeting process, how do I convince that person that giving away $1 million for anything is a good idea?”
Commissioner David Tomita addressed Edens’ question by saying the county uses recurring funds to pay recurring expenses, such as salaries, rather than using the general fund balance. Tomita also said that the most reliable recurring fund is sales tax revenue. When visitors from outside the county come in to see events such as those to be held at the Fine and Performing Arts Center, they buy tickets, food and other items that provide sales tax revenue to Washington County. “That lowers our tax burden,” said Tomita. “But you’ve got to give them a reason to come.”
Ford told Noland, “I am in no way, shape, form or fashion against a fine arts facility, but my phone has been ringing too, and the biggest concern I have had from constituents in my district is allocating taxpayer money for ten years.”
Humphreys said he felt the commission had not been given adequate time to consider the funding request. “This was sprung on us out of the clear blue,” he said. “We’ve not really had an opportunity to look at what we’re giving away a million dollars for. East Tennessee needs this. It will be a boon for the area. I understand that. But for us to give a million dollars and not know anything about it…no one told us anything at all about it.”
The Commerce, Industry and Agriculture Committee reviewed ETSU’s request at its regular meeting, said Tomita. “We had a very good presentation from Mr. (Jeremy) Ross (ETSU chief of staff).” The committee recommended full commission approval on a 4-1 vote, and the committee’s report was placed in the packet each commissioner receives to review prior to the full commission meeting.
In addition, local media have covered the initiative since its inception Feb. 14, 2013. “This has been in the newspapers for a long time,” said Commissioner Rick Storey.
“It’s also worth noting that this project would open up about $65 million in construction dollars into this local economy over two years,” said Commissioner Todd Hensley. “That’s huge right now.”
Noland also addressed concerns that the university might someday return to the county to ask for more funds to operate the center. “The revenue to operate the facility would all come from institutional sources,” Noland told the commission. “Much of that would be through enrollment growth. We anticipate that as our arts programs evolve, it will grow enrollment by about 125 students particularly in the arts. The tuition revenue and state appropriations that support that instruction is what we would use to help operate the facility.”
Noland also expressed a desire to make more ETSU campus venues available to county school events including music concerts and graduation ceremonies. “I also feel that we should look to the possibility, when the new stadium is constructed, of bringing the Musket Bowl back to campus,” Noland said. “I know that used to be played in the dome. When the new stadium is complete, we welcome the opportunity to bring that game back to campus. The more people we can bring to our campus the better.”