One-stop learning center evolving in Breckenridge Commons

Apr. 06, 2013 @ 10:54 PM

Twenty months are left on a $20 million commitment.

That’s the estimation of how long before the curtain pulls back for performances at McGregor Hall, the final piece of completing Breckenridge Commons. Currently, McGregor Hall is a large lobby-like, gallery area at the entrance to Perry Memorial Library.

When construction is complete, about December of 2014, that lobby will be just a lobby, and McGregor Hall will be the name adorning a state of the art, 1,000-seat performance theater.

Excitement from those close to the project is infectious. City leaders past and present see a rough path moving more and more into the rearview mirror. Ahead are destinations capped only by one’s imagination.

The Embassy Cultural Center Foundation, Inc., announced plans last week for the final stages of the project, laying out how the future of the new venue would unfold. The group reminded much work has been accomplished, and much is still to be done even after the doors open.

But something new and different is on the way to downtown Henderson.

“The journey is a good thing,” said Mark Hopper, a foundation board member and recognized leader among the city’s performing artists community. “We’re wringing our hands about it, jokes that it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime, but I’ve felt there has been a civic pessimism in Henderson. And this is another thing to refute that.

“With a facility like this, that’s not true. We will have the best library this area can offer, and the best arts center. It gives us reason to be optimistic about the future of our town.”

The city won’t be operating it, and taxpayers won’t be funding it. Downtown is expected to get a needed boost from it, and a one-block destination learning center will serve the youngest and oldest of the city’s citizens.

“It’s always good to have some more cultural activities in Vance County,” said Alice Clark Stallings of the Vance County Arts Council. “The more positive things you have, the less negative elements may be floating around.”

Vance County venues currently challenged by booking dates, age or both will get relief, not competition.

And the possibilities for the future are vastly improved for a community languishing in poverty and unemployment, still not fully recovered from the economy’s hit on local industry pillars Harriet & Henderson Yarns, Inc., and Rose’s.

“I really think this could be a keystone to revitalization of downtown,” Hopper said. “Even though its for county and city, we’ve got to see this as regional. We’re going to draw from southern Virginia, the Tri-County area — this is going to be a magnet for people who are traveling to Durham and Louisburg for these kinds of offerings. And we’re going to offer it right here.”

What it is

An original conceptual design provided good talking points. But as time passed, ideas were shared, the Embassy foundation began to look around, and an extra direction was sought and achieved.

Szostak Design, Inc., out of Chapel Hill, with signature work widely praised on the Durham Performing Arts Center, was chosen as the architect. When it comes to performance venues, the company is known for high standard aesthetics, acoustics and sightlines.

Shovels should turn in August. Completion is expected by the end of December 2014.

Not only is the theater expected to be a tremendous experience for those in the audience, those performing on stage, working behind the scenes or even utilizing delivery points to the building are expected to find all aspects user-friendly regardless of the size or kind of production.

In choosing Szostak, the foundation believes alterations have been made to have a more energy-efficient building reducing operating expenditures.

“The original theater construction was basically 600 seats down and 400 in the balcony,” said John Wester, president of the Embassy board. “The new plan calls for 1,000 seats downstairs, no balcony. But, you will enter the theater in the middle. So when you’re having small productions, the back part of the theater will be black, and the front part lighted, so you don’t have the illusion of walking into an empty theater for a small production.

“It’s these sensitive issues to design that our architect has brought to the table that make all the sense in the world.”

Operation of the facility

The foundation and the city will not try and operate the performing arts theater. A management company will instead become a part of the equation, with a facility director.

Wester said the company would pay a percentage of revenues back to the foundation. Use of the facility by local groups will be guaranteed within the framework of the contract by the foundation.

Once the city requests the library from the foundation, it will be granted with no debt attached. The foundation will own and maintain the lobby between the library and the theater, and usage agreements will be put in place for logistics, including parking.

The goal, Wester said, is for win-win situations for everyone involved downtown, from the city to the business owners to the community to Breckenridge Commons.

“We’ve raised our money independent of municipal and county government,” Wester said. “We’re not asking for the community to fund this any more than they will be through buying a ticket. There is no financial commitment from the city or the county.”

Paying for it

What could have been a taxpayer-funded project changed in the late 1990s with the formation of the Embassy Cultural Center Foundation. Its mission was to be a non-profit, soliciting funds for construction of Breckenridge Commons.

The foundation raised $12 million toward the library, and another $8 million will build the theater. Foundation leadership said there is only a little more to go to have the $8 million in hand. Money started arriving in 1998.

“It was a comprehensive idea, how to do some rebuilding and rehabbing downtown, and develop downtown,” said Garry Daeke, a Henderson city councilman since 2005. “I think the timing, as it turned out, made it difficult. As they started, got the land, did the demolition, then Harriet & Henderson slowed, and Rose’s slowed, and they were in the middle of it. They made it a priority to move forward. And then the economy changed around and made it a difficult project to go forward.

“It was always where were the funds coming from?”

And Daeke said the city wasn’t and still isn’t the best fiscal option.

“I don’t think we could have expertise or dollars to operate it,” Daeke said. “If this can happen with little impact to the city, and the taxpayers, it’s a great thing.”

“People who have donated to this, given of their time, now we see it’s going to be a reality,” said Pete O’Geary, Henderson’s mayor. “Thanks to all of those citizens who have had a hand in this. This is a great step forward.”

Sam Watkins, vice president of the foundation board, doesn’t want any credit, but everyone around him says he’s a big part of the fundraising arm.

“It’s a community project,” Watkins said. “It’s terrific community pride for me when I look at the thing. We’ve raised $12 million. You’re going to have $20 million investment paid for by the citizens of Henderson.

“I would call your attention to the fact Granville County is trying to have something half as good as you’ve got, they had a vote and voted to put tax money in it. This is a $20 million investment by the concerned and caring citizens of Vance County on behalf of its citizens.”

What it is not

School auditoriums provide venues throughout the county. When the Vance-Granville Community College Civic Center was added to the venue list, scores of concerts and performances, exhibitions, banquets and luncheons, conventions, conferences and other community events had another choice.

McGregor Hall is promised as a complement to the civic center, not a rival.

Other theater facilities from Durham to the northeastern part of the state — Roanoke Rapids’ Palace Theatre, the Jones Performing Arts Center at Louisburg College, the Durham Performing Arts Center — are different in more ways than one. If truly making a complete comparison, McGregor Hall is not a duplication.

“The Roanoke Rapids theater was built on a promise if you build it, they will come. And it will generate revenue going forward,” Wester said. “Our intention is to build this thing with the revenue needed to build it as being behind us.

“We’re not trying to be the mega-theater that attracts 52-weeks a year programming in an area that is probably not sufficiently sized to generate those types of revenue. Plus, they had the debt going into it.”

“They were debt-leveraged to start with,” Watkins added. “We have virtually no debt.”

“It’s minimal recurring debt that is very manageable,” Wester said.

McGregor will create its niche, Hopper said.

“The instant comparison is Roanoke Rapids, and the horror stories with it,” Hopper said. “It was gone about in a very different way, with a lot of background planning and effort form the community. It wasn’t a grassroots proposition. It’s also much larger. I hope people won’t jump to that comparison.”

It will, however, have similar capabilities as the DPAC.

“This facility will be designed so it could do that, not the size of it, but as far as technical rigging, and design of the space, it could feasibly be used,” Hopper said. “Yet, it is still a manageable facility. The 1,000-seat threshold was a hard line in the design phase.”

Project history

Getting to a stage of being ready to build has been no small accomplishment.

The first ideas were to turn a blighted area in downtown into a municipal facility. The city spent money to fully acquire the block. Former Henderson mayor Chick Young and Watkins described the appearance as though standing back in time: gas stations, rundown houses, a burned out Winn-Dixie, blacktop parking.

“That was basically a slum area and an unsafe area,” Watkins said.

A joint facility by the city and county didn’t materialize. Community input gave vision for planning.

And time passed. The economy fluctuated. Sides were taken, and in hindsight, sacrifices were left in the aftermath, arguably including political futures.

But the dream of a performing arts theater never wavered.

O’Geary didn’t want to talk about the past, and he’s not alone. Foundation leaders move forward defensively prepared, battle-tested by past arguments and hoping to swat away any potential future opposition.

It is understandable, given the turbulence.

“It’s had its ups and downs,” Hopper said. “That long journey has been a good one. We’ve been able to air out things that otherwise might have come too quickly without a lot of thought.

“The best thing is through time, we’ve had time to think through every aspect as it came to fruition. The leadership team has been thorough in seeking a vision, and seeking out the best resources.”

Downtown boost

Trips down Garnett Street are nostalgic for old-timers. But for newcomers, color and vibrancy are not leaping from the sidewalks and storefronts.

Enhancement is on the way with McGregor Hall. But is it a turning point for downtown?

“It is a possibility,” O’Geary said. “This could be it. We’re right in the center of I-85 and U.S. 1 and U.S. 158 and all the traffic. Yes, I think so. This is going to be good.”

“I’m pretty darned excited about it,” Daeke said. “This could be another part of the economic development pie.”

Library cooperation

Perry Memorial has had multiple homes since opening Sept. 1, 1924. But in nearly 90 years, while it has continued to grow and expand, so too have the minds and intellects of its users.

Books, media, technology, services for adults and youth and a multitude of events make up day-to-day operations.

“For so long, there has been this premise that we have a library and we have a theater, and they don’t get the relationship between the two,” said Wester. “Breckenridge Commons is a learning center, the whole block.

“You’re going to have one room that does one thing, and one room that does another.”

Jay Stephens, the library director of two years, understands strains from a tough economy. But he endorses having big ideas and dreams, and seeking to fulfill them.

“We think there will be some opportunities for some joint programming, maybe a play or topic, we can do some book discussion or program that relates,” Stephens said. “I think we can work on some things together. The real exciting thing is it makes the whole block a destination place for the city and the county.

“It’s a one-stop shop for entertainment and recreational needs.”

Young said the library has constant usage for computers. Traffic in the combined facility is expected to be great.

“It’ll duplicate for your young folks what the library has done for them,” Watkins said. “If it gives them the same lift the library has given them, it’ll be a wonderful thing for this community and it’ll level the playing field. A lot of them have never been to the mall, let alone seen anything that helps them understand what could be, or provides hope, or provides a challenge.

“We’ve got to find some way to help them and challenge them to reach higher. Without something like this, how are you going to do it?”

Future generations

Young thinks the ultimate form of flattery is coming.

“I think it has caught the attention of people outside of Henderson, that if they can do it up there in Henderson, we can do it here, too,” Young said. “We’ve been used as a model for how to get this thing done.”

Generations to come will reap the benefits.

“I believe the arts make you well-rounded,” Stallings said. “If you notice, the geniuses in the world are the ones who listen to classical music and become doctors and engineers. Theater is another platform for voice, for acting and singing. You have people in this county who may never be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor, but they may have a talent with their voice.”

Community input is expected with regard to visiting performances.

“We need to make sure the community sees this as something for everybody,” Watkins said. “It’s been one of our knocks in the past.”

“We are not an elitist organization,” Wester said. “Our programming will be built upon what people want.”

And the range, from seminars and classes to traditional stage events, is wide.

“I see the key here as partnering between the community college, the library, the hospital, these foundations and these entities that are going to survive all of us,” Watkins said. “If you can learn to partner with the success stories in the community, you can’t fail. That’s where we need to get to.

“It doesn’t need to be something that somebody thinks one or two people did. That’s not the case at all. It’s an effort to pull this community together, to survive this position we find ourselves in, which is pretty tough.”

McGregor Hall has been on the way to reality a long time. The days until the theatric climax are dwindling.

Twenty million down, 20 months to go.


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