Miller can be 'focus of attraction' downtown

The term "theater district" carries a strong visual image.

One pictures immediately the glittering marquees, excited crowds, the air of expectancy as people hurry from one or another of the nearby restaurants to immerse themselves in an evening of music -- orchestral, jazz, rock or choral, classical ballet or interpretive dance, opera, famous plays by gifted performers, or experimental work by local writers.

Later comes an image of crowds pouring out into the streets and dispersing to local coffee houses or lounges or night bakeries to discuss the evening -- pausing now and then to admire something in a window of one of the attractive shops along the way.

But Augusta doesn't have a vibrant "theater district" to excite people or attract business leaders to the city.

WE HAVE A world-class symphony orchestra bouncing from one venue to another; a fabulous opera, poorly quartered; and no focus point around which shops and restaurants congregate and contribute to the magnetic force that must exist to hold the city to its core.

We do have a master plan that includes a multi-thousand-seat performing arts center -- but that is likely to be a decade away, and the cost could turn out to be prohibitive.

On the other hand, a nucleus for our "theater district" is right at hand: the Miller and Imperial theaters!

When renovated, the Miller will seat 1,400, compared to The Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the world-famous Boston Symphony plays some of its New York season, at about 3,000. The Imperial, at 800, can be compared to the classic Barrymore Theater on Broadway, with 1,096.

CONSIDERING THE relative populations, this capacity seems generous indeed, and certainly capable of carrying us well into the future and transforming one area of the city into a neighborhood, if you will, alive with the performing arts.

In Georgia, the Miller is second in size only to the Fox in Atlanta, and has its own impressive history of world premieres and famous visitors. It is a nearly empty shell, but structurally sound and protected from deterioration by an entirely new roof.

And, in a generous act of civic responsibility, it has been given to the Augusta Symphony by Mr. Peter Knox IV!

It has been estimated that renovation of the Miller into a top-level concert and multipurpose performing arts center will cost approximately $10 million to $12 million.

WHILE SOME of this can, of course, be borne by private and corporate contributions, the use of special purpose local option sales tax funds, requested by the Augusta Symphony, is critical to spearhead the effort, and clearly in the interest of every Augustan.

The city should embrace this project now, when the much-needed creation of this sort of downtown "focus of attraction" can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost attached to demolition and building from scratch at some point in the future.

And when, at the same time, we can support a tradition of preserving our historic buildings for new roles in their old age.

(The writer is a retired Medical College of Georgia professor and an Augusta resident since 1961.)

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