Miller's newest hope

After initially turning down an offer to take over the historic Miller Theatre, the Augusta Symphony is championing a plan to bring the venue back to life.

The symphony recently submitted a proposal to the Augusta Commission requesting $12 million in special purpose local option sales tax money to restore and renovate the Broad Street theater with the performing arts in mind.

Miller owner Peter Knox estimated in August that the renovation he began could be completed for $6 million, the amount City Administrator Fred Russell has recommended be included in the next sales tax referendum.

But Sandra Self, the symphony's executive director, said that while the $6 million represents an excellent start, it would pay for only part of the renovations required to ready the venue for not only the symphony, but also dance, opera, jazz and theater performances. The rest would be raised independently.

"It would not bring it back to where we need it," Ms. Self said. "The stage, for instance, is not big enough. That's a big, big thing. There are also a lot of very basic problems. There are no bathrooms downstairs. There is some asbestos. These are things that need to be fixed and would be expensive."

Other expenses could include the purchase of an acoustic orchestra shell and acoustically treating the walls and ceiling for live performances.

Asbestos removal and bathrooms were included in the original $6 million estimate. An enlarged stage and acoustic treatments were not.

The theater was built in 1940 and used through 1985. Mr. Knox bought the property three years ago and began repairing some of the more pressing problems.

He offered the property to the symphony and other groups but was turned down at the time. He placed the property up for sale last summer but has agreed to donate it to the symphony.

The symphony is spearheading a movement to form an independent nonprofit charged with the renovation and operation of the Miller.

The symphony, Ms. Self said, will not and cannot get into the venue management business. That's part of the reason the symphony turned down the proposed donation of the building last year. Ms. Self said the offer was also refused because at the time, the symphony and its board felt the momentum was still moving toward the construction of a new performing arts center. She said the downturn in the economy forced them to rethink that position.

"We felt like the $125 million that might have cost just didn't compute in this economy. The Miller became much more realistic," she said.

What Ms. Self does not envision is the Miller competing with the smaller Imperial Theatre a half-block away across Broad Street. She's hopeful both venues might be run under a single Augusta Theater District umbrella.

"They can complement each other," she said. "You can have an 800-seat hall (the Imperial) for certain programming and a 1,500-seat hall (the Miller) for other programming."

Charles Scavullo, the Imperial's executive director, said that while the Miller would represent competition, he believes it's the sort of competition that can only help the arts and downtown.

"It would enhance the neighborhood," he said. "We see them as having different constituencies."

Ms. Self said she thought the renovation of the Miller might also foster artistic growth, citing the possibility of a Wycliffe Gordon jazz series, curated by the Augusta-born trombonist, and a lecture series.

"What it would really do is give the opportunity for arts organizations to work together more easily," she said.

The symphony's Miller timeline envisions performances on the stage within four years. Ms. Self admitted that schedule is aggressive, particularly when the first year could easily be spent in exploratory mode.

Still, she believes with the Miller, there's a secret weapon that previous performing arts center proposals couldn't wield: The Miller is already here.

"And people have a connection to it," she said. "You mention the Miller, and people respond. Still, there are so many things to be looked at, so many things to be done.

"We don't even know where to put the bathrooms."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

1940

Year the theater opened

45

Number of years the theater was used

1,500

Approximate number of seats

$6 million

Amount theater owner Peter Knox estimated would be needed for renovation

$12 million

Tax funds the Augusta Symphony requested to renovate the building

The Augusta Commission will meet Thursday and Jan. 22 to establish the final sales tax proposal and voting date.