Civic/arts center feasibility study completed - What's next?

November 20, 2003
Karen B. Eldridge, Director of News and Public Information

A feasibility study recently conducted by an outside consulting firm suggested that a new civic/arts center is needed in Blount County and that it makes good sense – both economically and operationally – for Maryville College and local governmental entities to partner in the construction of such a facility. So what’s next?

According to Mark Cate, vice president for advancement and admissions at Maryville College and chairperson of the task force that led the feasibility study, it’s important for government officials, educators and arts and business leaders to discuss and consider the questions and issues raised by the feasibility study recommendations.

Cate said the College wasn’t trying to sell this [civic/arts center idea] to the community but was instead taking advantage of an opportunity to pursue construction of a facility that might meet both the College’s needs and the needs of this community and region at the same time.

“ The College remains committed to this potential partnership,” the vice president said, “but in the end, if there’s simply not enough interest, we will move forward in formulating plans that meet the needs of our students, faculty and staff. Such a facility would be much different than what would be constructed if designed for the entire community.”

How the study came to be

The current Maryville College Fine Arts Center was completed in 1950 and includes a 254-seat music hall, music library, art studio, gallery and classroom and office spaces. The Wilson Chapel/Theatre Complex, which is nearly 50 years old, includes a 1,250-seat auditorium and a 400-seat theatre.

Both facilities are in desperate need of improvement or replacement, and the MC Window of Opportunity Plan, a strategic plan adopted by the College’s Board of Directors in April 2002, calls for a “newly constructed Center for the Fine and Performing Arts [that] will significantly enhance the educational offerings of the College and integrate community and regional activity in the arts.”

Last winter, the College approached Blount County and the cities of Alcoa and Maryville to see if they would like to jointly fund and participate in a study that would determine the feasibility of the four entities partnering in a civic/arts center that would serve both the College and the community. All voted to join the study.

Webb Management Services, Inc., a New York, N.Y.-based consulting firm specializing in fine and performing arts centers, was hired to conduct the study. Meetings and interviews with more than 50 people representing the arts, local schools, governments and businesses began in May and concluded in November. A public forum presenting the findings of the study was held Nov. 13 in the Music Hall of the Fine Arts Center.

The findings

The feasibility study set out to answer four basic questions, noted Duncan Webb, president of the firm.

  • Is there an audience for programs in new/renovated facilities?
  • Are there users and programs to activate new/renovated facilities?
  • What needs are not currently met by other facilities serving the community and region?
  • What are the broader benefits and impacts that a new/renovated facility would have on the community and region?

Compiling anecdotal information from interviews and scientific data that revealed local and regional population demographics, a summary of civic/arts facilities in a 30-mile radius, market analysis (including tourism), potential audiences and users, potential benefits and impacts in the community and national trends on arts attendance as indicated by recent studies conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and RAND, representatives from Webb Management Services concluded that “a strong case can be made for new facilities – both for civic/social/business purposes, and for arts and culture.”

The consulting firm went on to make specific recommendations for the type of facility that may serve the College and region. Those recommendations included a 1,200-seat proscenium theater, a 350-seat recital hall, a 250-seat flexible theater, two or three new art galleries, two or three civic rooms/ballrooms/conference rooms that can accommodate up to 500 people, designated space for an Appalachian Cultural Center and support spaces (classroom, studio and office spaces, storage, public spaces).

Webb recommended that the College own and operate the facilities but added that the civic/arts center have some autonomy from the College in terms of fundraising and governance that would include an advisory board made up of representatives from all contributing partners.

“ There must be a benefit and incentive to all financial backers,” Webb said.

Recommending that the facility stay “as busy as possible,” the consulting firm determined that a new civic/arts center on the College campus could see as many as 85,000 concert- or theatre-goers in a year and, combined with workshop and conference attendees, could have a significant economic impact from operations and other ancillary spending in Blount County.

“ And of course, there’s the non-quantifiable impact of such a facility,” Webb added. “This includes the increased attractiveness of the area to businesses and potential employees, residents and students.”

The Appalachian Cultural Center

The feasibility study found a growing market for the arts but not an audience necessarily predisposed to “traditional art” like orchestra, symphony or ballet performances. Seeing an interest in regional and folk art, the consulting firm said it was excited about the possibility of an Appalachian Cultural Center living in a new civic/arts facility.

The Appalachian Culture Center might include a small museum component, but could also provide and coordinate educational programming for local schools and the public. Working with the Smoky Mountains Visitors Bureau, the center might host a summer music and cultural festival. In collaboration with the Center for Communities (a concept currently being developed at the College), the Appalachian Cultural Center could sponsor and promote workshops and conferences that deal with community issues.

No exact location of a civic/arts center on the Maryville College campus has been determined, and Cate said until the size, scope and site location of the facility are decided, construction costs are speculative.

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,198.