By Jeff Keeling
With $28 million in state funding in the budget, East Tennessee State University officials are eager to move ahead with plans to build a new off-campus performing arts center on “Lot 1” next to the Millennium Centre. The size of the center’s main hall remains an open question, with the city government likely to determine the answer.
ETSU has about $2.5 million to go to reach its $10 million-plus matching fundraising requirement, but even that figure would not fund the size of performance space ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland has said he prefers.
The university plans to hire an architect soon, and the beginning of the design phase is just months away. That phase marks a point of no return in terms of setting auditorium size – making it the deadline by which city leaders must decide whether to fund a larger venue.
“We’re proceeding in conversations with the city,” Noland said at a news conference Thursday.
Noland first told city leaders in late 2013 he would like to partner in building a center with an auditorium larger than the state’s 750-seat norm. The city, he said, would need to pay for the additional seating capacity to make that happen.
ETSU’s preferred capacity is 1,200 to 1,400 seats, with cost estimates to get there in the $4-7 million range. In return, the facility would be shared, allowing Johnson City to attract concerts, plays and other performances. Those performances would bring money into the community, making it more attractive for economic development.
City commissioners’ views are mixed.
Johnson City Vice Mayor Clayton Stout said he supports the notion of an arts center off campus, but believes the city’s planned in-kind commitments – in the way of traffic and pedestrian upgrades, water retention and land donation – represent a sufficient level of support.
“I have some real reservations as far as the financial request that’s being made of us,” Stout said.
Noland has confirmed any commitment could be spread over a period up to 30 years. Were the additional commitment to total, say, $6 million, it could cost the city around $240,000 a year including interest (calculated at 1.5 percent). Discussions have begun over where that money might come from, with an increase in the city’s lodging tax (up for state approval this session) one possible source.
Stout said he believed that additional lodging tax revenue might be better spent upgrading Freedom Hall and the city’s soccer and softball facilities.
Commissioner Jenny Brock has a different take. She said she fully supports investing in the additional seating capacity, provided the city gets written assurances from the state, “that there will be ample time that’s dedicated for community use.
“This is an investment,” she said. “It’s different from a manufacturing company, but it will generate ancillary things around it, and to me this is really about job creation as well.
“I feel positive about it. Once we see the final numbers on how we generate that annual investment, then I’m ready to go.”
Commissioner David Tomita said he supports the larger center in concept and believes the partnership details can be worked through. He echoed Brock regarding the long-term benefits to the community. “I would be in support of increasing the number of seats,” he said.
Tomita was adamant, though, that he won’t support the project if it requires a property tax increase.
“A lot is riding on the hotel-motel tax proposal, because we’ve got to find a way to fund it,” Tomita said. He said he supports using “some of” any such increase, and that he believes there are other revenue sources such that, “I think we could piece together enough to get it where it needs to go.”
As for Noland, he said Thursday, “I am excited about the conversations we’ve had and I look forward to the outcome.
“We have one chance to do this right. I don’t know what the definition of right may be, but I’m hopeful that in three years we’re breaking ground on a building that is truly a home for the arts for the region.”
News and Neighbor attempted to reach Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and commissioner Jeff Banyas for comment on this story.