Augusta arts groups request SPLOST funds for venues, cultural projects



Big visions for Augusta’s cultural arts scene are on the horizon, if taxpayers foot the bill.

Renovating historic theaters, planning for new performing arts venues and infusing the city with sculptures and murals are among requests for money from the next phase of the special purpose local option sales tax. Several nonprofit agencies want a share of the tax collections, which they say would benefit the city’s rise as a mecca for the arts.

The requests will have to pass a vetting of the Augusta Commission before going to taxpayers for a vote. Commissioners are narrowing a $721 million project wish list to $200 million for the sales tax package that the city has depended on since 1988 to finance capital projects.

Agencies outside the city government, Hephzibah or Blythe that are requesting SPLOST 7 dollars for the arts include:

• Imperial Theatre: $6 million to complete renovations to the historic Broad Street venue

• Symphony Orchestra Augusta: $12.9 million for Miller Theater renovations and a new music institute

• Paine College: $8 million for the new James Brown Community and Fine Arts Cultural Center

• Augusta Mini Theatre: $1.8 million for a 250-seat theater

• Greater Augusta Arts Council: more than $14 million for public arts such as sculptures and murals at city gateways, bus hubs and parks, $2 million for affordable living space for artists and $32,000 for a public arts master plan

Brenda Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, said the city has spent years building a new judicial center, sheriff’s administration building and other much-needed facilities. In addition to the Miller and Imperial renovations, the city needs a new performing arts center on the river to replace the Bell Auditorium, she said.

“It is time we sat in a state-of-the-art theater. Arts have been on the back burner,” Durant said.

Mayor Pro-Tem Corey Johnson, a vocal proponent of a performing arts center on the river, did not respond to multiple voicemails left on his cell phone. Neither did Matt Kwatinetz, the director of Mayor Deke Copenhaver’s Augusta Regional Collaboration Project, who has been studying a downtown arts district.

Donna Williams, Augusta’s finance director, said SPLOST projects by nongovernmental agencies must meet guidelines that benefit the advancement of the community. In most cases, 25 percent matching funds are required before tax allocations are disbursed.

“It’s not just an outright gift,” she said.

Symphony Orchestra Augusta Executive Director Mieko di Sano said the 1,300-seat Miller Theater will complement the existing Imperial, creating a downtown theater district on the 700 block of Broad Street. The Miller and its attached music institute will host events for more than just the symphony.

The current SPLOST phase allocated $5.1 million to the Miller and $1.25 million to the Imperial. More money would help complete the projects, leaders said.

“(SPLOST 7) would be the key to enable not only what we’d like to be able to do but what we need to be able to do,” said Imperial Theatre Executive Director Charles Scavullo.

The Imperial would use the tax dollars to replace the heating and air unit in the main seating area, expand the front of the house and create access to the second floor and basement, Scavullo said. Those additions are the last components of renovations that began in the early 1990s.

Brandon Brown, Paine College’s vice president of institutional advancement, said the college wants to be a part of growing Augusta’s cultural arts. The $8 million SPLOST request would go towards a 1,400-seat theater with a recording studio costing $14 million total.

“We should be a resource for the tax-paying citizens,” said Brown, adding that Paine returns money to the area economy. “It’s a sound investment when citizens reinvest in the community.”

Augusta Mini Theatre asked for the smallest SPLOST amount of the arts groups. Executive Director Tyrone Butler said $1.8 million would build a 250-seat theater where low-income arts students can learn stage techniques such as lighting, sound and backstage jobs.

Located on Deans Bridge Road, Augusta Mini Theatre was allocated $857,000 in SPLOST 6 but has not yet raised the required 25 percent matching funds.

“Of course, we want to get the present match out of the way before we get the other one,” Butler said.

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