Originally created 03/20/00

RiverCenter takes shape



COLUMBUS, Ga. -- There is a sound to the city of Columbus.

It is a sound of pounding hammers and buzzing saws, a sound of chugging diesel-powered cranes, struggling to stack steel on steel.

It is the sound of construction, and it is all going on outside the window and across the street from the executive offices of RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.

Construction began a little more than a year ago, and already the form and silhouette of the mammoth endeavor is taking shape. Half of the project appears finished, its facade masked in brick. The other half is an unraveled, outstretched hand of steel fingers and concrete thumbs.

When completed, the only sounds emanating from the $70-million structure will be those of musical instruments, voices and applause.

The building will be five stories tall, encompassing 245,000 square feet with 6 million pounds of steel, a million masonry blocks, 300,000 bricks and 50,000 pounds of cement.

The RiverCenter for the Performing Arts will boast a grand 2,000-seat hall, a 150-seat studio theater, a 450-seat recital hall and Columbus State University's Schwob Department of Music.

There is talk of building a similar structure in Augusta.

Julian Osbon, president of Augusta Tomorrow, said one of the committees working to plan the city's future is studying the idea of building a performing arts center somewhere in the greater Augusta area.

At the same time, another group is talking of building an arts center in North Augusta.

"These groups need to work together and find the best place to put one major arts center, rather than two smaller ones." Mr. Osbon said.

The cooperation Mr. Osbon speaks of is one of the reasons Columbus's project has experienced success.

There are millions of other reasons, like the $35 million grant from the Bradley-Turner Foundation and $17 million more from the state, but it has been the cooperative effort, most notably in the success of The Columbus Challenge, that has made the dream a reality.

A community fund-raising initiative, The Columbus Challenge gathered more than $25 million from the private sector, not just for the RiverCenter but for the other nonprofit operations. Money was raised for the Springer Opera House, the Columbia Museum, the Coca-Cola Space Science Center and the Historic Columbus Foundation, to name a few.

In all, more than $83 million has been piled together in the effort to make Columbus a mecca for arts and culture.

"It is truly the spirit of cooperation and collaboration from the arts community that has made this happen," said Susan Lawhorne, chairwoman of the RiverCenter's board of directors. "We're all working together."

That's not to say there haven't been any setbacks.

Construction is a little behind schedule, but as Ms. Lawhorne said, "With projects of this magnitude, you expect to have delays."

There have been instances, Ms. Lawhorne said, when materials haven't come in, when subcontractors have taken more time than expected to complete jobs, and when materials that did come in on time had to be sent back because they weren't cut right.

"It's a very complex building; it's a complex process," she said. "We're looking at a grand opening in December or maybe January of (2001)."

Some complications stem from the large number of acoustic issues that must be addressed during each phase of construction. These complexities are not part of ordinary building plans, Ms. Lawhorne said.

Several rooms, for example, need to be soundproof. "That makes this even more complex," she said.

Other glitches that have plagued construction include the realization that the original air-conditioning unit for the theater would be inadequate. A larger one was needed and, as in the making of a dress, alterations needed to be made.

A change in the architectural design of the building -- from a curved, arching glass entryway to a more traditional front -- also has extended the estimated date of completion. But as Ms. Lawhorne said, it is all worthwhile.

"We feel this is really going to improve the quality of life in Columbus," she said. "We think it is going to really change people's ideas about Columbus; it will create a sense of empowerment in our citizens ... ."

Augustans may not have a performing arts center to dream about, but there are a number of other projects currently under way or about to start that will change the look of this city, Mr. Osbon said.

Renovation of The Woodrow Wilson House is expected to be completed by the end of this year. The Golf Hall of Fame should be finished by next year. Work on Springfield Village, the Lamar House, the Augusta Commons project, a convention center and an art museum are all set to begin within the next 12 to 18 months.

"In the next 10 years, we will have a major performing arts center and we will also have a medical research park," Mr. Osbon said. "Those things will happen. It's just a matter of time and, of course, money. There's a lot of brick and mortar in place and a lot of plans to address other projects. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen here."

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.