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Riley lukewarm to Calhoun downtown center proposal

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com· 340-2432

Gov. Bob Riley and Tom Corts, interim chancellor of the state’s Department of Postsecondary Education, got their first look Tuesday at a proposed fine arts center that proponents hope would rejuvenate downtown Decatur.

The governor’s reaction to the proposal, which would move Calhoun Community College’s fine arts department to the heart of the city, was not, however, as positive as supporters would have liked.

Riley said he would have a hard time justifying the estimated $30 million-to-$40 million project when he has secondary schools in need of repair or replacement.

“It’s a matter of priorities,” Riley said.

He also said that if Decatur were to get a fine arts center, other state community colleges’ hometowns would demand similar centers.

Riley tempered his comments by saying that he would, however, consider the proposal if city and county leaders were willing to enter into a partnership with the college to fund the center’s construction. He said he doubts that many cities other than Decatur could pull off such a partnership.

He suggested that federal grant funding might be available for such a project.

Riley said a fine arts center is different from a robotics center, which he supports building because it would be a business investment with a quick payoff.

Calhoun President Marilyn Beck, The Decatur Daily General Manager Clint Shelton and Rick Paler, a Downtown Revitalization Authority board member, made the presentation for Riley and Corts.

Shelton said the group needs to meet with Decatur Mayor Don Kyle, Morgan County Commission Chairman John Glasscock and Beck to re-evaluate the project and figure out how much financial support it would have from the various entities.

“We’ve got to gauge their interest in the project,” Shelton said.

Initially, the County Commission’s involvement was limited to considering giving Calhoun the auxiliary courthouse parking lot on Lee Street Northeast.

“We would do what we can,” Glasscock said.

“But I can’t commit the county’s money, but I’m sure Morgan County’s commissioners are very interested in this project.”

The proposal had city leaders committing to contribute city-owned property between First and Second Avenues, including the former Robinson Furniture Building.

The proposal calls for renovating the building into classrooms, demolishing the former Decatur Utilities and Elks Lodge buildings and building a 750- to 800-seat theater.

Kyle said he and Decatur City Council members support the project but now must re-evaluate it after they learn how much of a commitment the state wants from the city.

Downsizing plans

Kyle suggested proponents may have to look at downsizing initial plans and building the center in phases. He said they could renovate the Robinson building, use the Princess Theatre for the Performing Arts and delay construction of the theater.

“Maybe we need to get this off the ground and make sure it’s successful instead of making a huge investment initially,” Kyle said.

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