By Jeff Keeling
If the City of Johnson City invests in East Tennessee State University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center (FPAC), it will be for a main performance hall with fewer seats than previously projected, inside a scaled down building.
That was the message delivered to city commissioners Monday night by ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland. ETSU has grappled with budget realities surrounding its planned FPAC, and an $8 million city investment will yield a main hall with 1,100 seats, fewer than the 1,200 to 1,300 mentioned when city commissioners approved such an investment last November.
Noland and the project’s architect Douglas McCarty shared how ETSU leaders spent recent weeks whittling about $12 million from the price tag. That process included a litany of cuts, including reducing the main hall’s seating capacity – were there to be no city investment – from 750 seats to 635, as well as taking $2.7 million in “moveable equipment” (musical equipment, some furniture and the like) completely out of the budget.
“We realized the aspirations of the institution were not realistic given the current climate around construction,” Noland said. “Construction costs during the past couple of years have escalated about 25, 30 percent, so what we thought we would have been able to do when we sat around this room a few years ago is a little bit more expensive than we expected.”
Initial, very rough estimates with no drawings or involvement with the construction management firm (Denark), had ETSU’s administration hopeful it could build an FPAC with a main performance hall of 750 seats and two other performance spaces for $40.65 million. After consulting with leaders from the various arts areas, the university submitted a proposed FPAC with all the bells and whistles.
The process took some time – Noland first broached the partnership idea with the city at the end of 2013 – and general construction costs rose. So when ETSU got hard numbers back, they had to begin prioritizing. In addition to reducing seat totals and eliminating moveable equipment (money for it will come from elsewhere), Noland and company eliminated about 15,000 square feet from the original design and opted to house several arts programs at other locations. The cost estimate for the scaled down FPAC, not including any city investment, is $41.47 million.
“That would be frustrating,” Mayor Clayton Stout said of dealing with the revelation that the FPAC as initially envisioned would cost about 30 percent more than ETSU’s budget.
“That’s an understatement,” Noland said. “Be glad you weren’t at the meeting when this was presented to me for the first time.”
Noland, who said the projected FPAC completion date is now January 2019, asked commissioners to confirm by August whether they want to enter a partnership on the FPAC, but he won’t have to wait that long. City Manager Pete Peterson, who attended the meetings with ETSU and the architects as costs were whittled down, said commissioners really need to decide over the next few weeks due to the fiscal 2017 budget deadlines.
It is anticipated that some of the funds to pay debt service on borrowing $8 million would come from part or all of the additional 2 percent lodging tax the city implemented last year.
Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin asked whether – if cost overruns occurred later – the city could see the 1,100-seat number decrease.
“We certainly are going to want some assurances that the seats don’t back up (from 1,100) in that event,” Van Brocklin said.
“If we look at this from a partnership perspective, we will commit to the 1,100 seats,” Noland said. “That (1,100 seats) would be your floor.”
In mentioning a partnership, Noland was referring to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) the two parties have drafted that would give the city significant usage of the facility during agreed-upon times each year. The MOU is aimed at ensuring the city gets some return for its investment. It also includes language geared toward promotion of the main hall to draw concerts and other entertainment that would bring visitors to Johnson City.
“If we put the seats in there and we don’t go after quality shows, it really has not been a good investment,” Commissioner Jeff Banyas said Monday.
Banyas also asked whether any of the cost reductions had impacted the stage areas, loading dock access and other elements that are critical to attracting big name acts or shows with significant amounts of stage equipment.
“We have not compromised any of those,” McCarty answered.
For his part, Noland began and ended the discussion talking about broader partnerships between ETSU and the city. He listed Freedom Hall, where ETSU’s men’s basketball team now plays, the mini dome, Thomas Stadium (ETSU baseball) and more as examples of the two entities working together to leverage one another’s resources. And he said many of those additional conversations sprang out of the initial talks about the FPAC.
“It was really a proposal around partnership,” he said. “How do we share facilities, how do we put our facilities – be it the baseball stadium, be it the soccer stadium, be it the mini dome or be it our entire campus – to great use at the disposal of the people of Johnson City? In return, we had a conversation of, ‘how do we look at the assets the city has and look at a partnership with respect to the institution.”
For now, though, the city’s decision is a critical element of the FPAC’s future, including in the fundraising arena, Noland said.
“The first question we get from potential big donors is, ‘what’s the city going to do?’” he said. “Our ability to close several major gifts is impacted by this decision, and we have three major asks out that are in excess of $500,000 each. They’re all sitting on the sidelines waiting.”
Regardless of the city’s eventual decision, Noland said the FPAC will be built next to the Millennium Centre on land ETSU has purchased there, and added that partnerships in other areas will continue to be pursued. “Our commitment to partnership is unwavering,” he said.
And he apologized for both the amount of time it’s taken to get hard numbers, and for the reality those numbers present.
“I regret that we’re bringing you numbers tonight that take the Main Hall from 1,200 to 1,100, but that’s the reality that was presented to us.”