Lawrenceville's city council is reviewing an update and request for additional funding for Aurora Theater's expansion with hopes to increase from $26 million to a $32.1 million project. Pending approval by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, the plans include three classrooms that will serve as a fine arts center for Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC).
During a city council meeting on Oct. 11, Dr. Stas Preczewski, President of GGC, said pending the approval of the Board of Regents, the college is interested in expanding the campus to downtown Lawrenceville so that the institution can become more involved in the greater community.
With 400 students enrolled in the new Cinema and Media Arts Production (CMAP) major, the college hopes to strengthen its existing relationship with Aurora Theater and the city of Lawrenceville.
Pending approval by the board of regents, GCC would begin a long-term annual facility lease totaling $6.1 million. If all proceeds as requested, the new theater will seat 500 and will feature a Cabaret along with a rehearsal room, an additional parking lot, and an outdoor courtyard.
"I ask you to look at this as a holistic project," Anthony Rodriguez, Aurora's Founder and Producing Artistic Director, said. "It's not about creating the other two theaters. It's about creating a campus — it's not even about those three classrooms. That's not what they need to create the student experience."
He added, "What they need for that student experience and to really have the one-on-one learning experience that they want, desire and crave is for all those spaces to work as one."
Dr. Preczewski suggested that bringing students downtown could raise spending downtown and boost Lawrenceville's economy. Dr. Preczewski admitted that while there is no data to back the claim, he could produce a team to determine how the college might affect the city if it extended to the downtown area.
The council expressed their gratitude for the college and Aurora but voiced concerns over both the budget and architecture.
"To me, we've got to be very careful in what we're doing and what we're proposing in this area because I think we are on very sensitive soil," Council Member Tony Powell said. "There are other people that have invested a lot of money in that area, and they deserve to have an input to what this looks like and how it works."
Council Member David Still said funding the project was a risk for the city, as SPLOST program has not yet confirmed it will fund the project. If SPLOST does not come in, the city will be under financial pressure, as they are already funding other projects, including one with the Board of Education.
"On the DDA, we were working with all those various groups, [with] all these different developers from outside the area," Still said. "What they were telling me is we had good bones, and this is what they would always say, ‘You've got the square . . . you've got the county government, the hospital and the college' — they never mentioned arts."
Kip Stokes, Project Manager and Vice President of CROFT & Associates, responded to the council's budget concerns suggesting they delay the project to collect another year of SPLOST funds to pay for an additional $4.3 million of the construction costs.
But according to the council, SPLOST’s funding is still pending, and citizens have voiced concern about how the project will affect the community.
"If we blow our budget on additions to the project that architecturally criticize our community, we will never get there," Powell said. "This has not been an easy conversation for us. And when we step on those other projects — you can hear it in my voice — I am willing to fight in that area."
Citizens in the audience, including Clyde Strickland — a local businessman and patron of Aurora, defended the project.
"My dad always said, ‘Clyde, always take care of the milk cow, cause she is going to feed cows that are going to keep us alive," Strickland said. "Well, friends and neighbors and councilmen, [Aurora] is the cow that has built a city, and for the next 20 years, this is going to be the cow that supplies the calves and draws everybody to this city, because it is going to be an explosion."
Sandra Strickland, a volunteer who works with children's organizations and nonprofits dealing with domestic violence, also spoke to Aurora's potential to improve the community.
"Somehow or another, if [children] learn music, if they participate in plays, they will become good citizens. You will see lives change — we've seen lives change," Mrs. Strickland said. "They grow up, but we have got to show them the way, and the way we do that is through music, through laughter, through art."
Mrs. Strickland appealed with one final thought, "And I am so proud of Aurora Theater, and I just think that we need to make this a number one [priority], and the others will work."
Theresa Bullock, Board Chair of Aurora, said the expansion would put pressure on their fundraising team who will need to raise $5 million in a Capital Campaign to support the project. But she also noted that having a larger building will enhance Aurora's partnerships with local schools.
"I have five grandchildren that attend Gwinnett County schools," Bullock said. "Right now, our theater doesn't hold the whole third-grade class at Craig Elementary, so they can't come to the theater. So, I was so excited when we decided to build a new theater. "
Stokes shared a few alternative designs that could reduce some of the construction costs. By reducing by 15,000 to 20,000 feet, they could cut the budget by $8.8 million. And if they postponed the construction of the Cabaret until a second construction phase, they would save the city another $2 million in upfront costs.
Currently valued at $400 to $435 per square foot, the proposed building is below the average theater construction costs per square foot. According to Stokes, it would be impossible to meet the requirements for the theater with a $26 million budget.
"If we make some changes, we will have a substantially different facility," Stokes said.
Aurora produces 850 shows a year out of the current facility, according to Rodriguez, and while the new facility would enhance their work, they will be content to do whatever is best for the city.
"So if you need to set this aside, ask us to set it aside. We will continue to do the work we do," Rodriguez said. "But the work we can create, and the things we can do with the expanded facility, in my opinion, are far beyond belief . . . the partnership with the college and the city is unlike any other in this country."
CROFT & Associates will present an update to the public on Nov. 13 during a retreat in Columbus, Ga. The council will again meet in the Lawrenceville Courthouse on Jan. 7, 2019, although they may not reach a decision until later in the year.