Auditorium a ‘genesis’ for cultural maturation in Greer

Auditorium a ‘genesis’ for cultural maturation in Greer

From The Greenville News

Article and photo by Michael Burns

The city of Greer is embarking to create an arts district with up to $100,000 in renovations to the old Greer City Auditorium, a building deeded to the city in 1983 and rented for years by a since-closed church.

Within a month four to seven small studios are set to be rented, cheaply, to artists approved by city officials, and the theater seating up to 299 will eventually stage plays and performances, if City Council approves later phases of work as expected.

Greer Auditorium

Greer City Auditorium (Photo: CITY OF GREER)

A small park on the property of about four acres at the intersection of Snow Street and Davis Avenue, just south of downtown Greer Station, will be connected with walking and biking paths to the central business district and neighborhoods throughout the area, as officials envision.

It’s all about the maturation of a community that’s revitalizing, already, and planning for a bright future, according to Mayor Rick Danner.

City officials hope the auditorium will serve as the first stroke of a cultural masterpiece.

“Arts bring you alive,” said Greer Cultural Arts Supervisor Robin Byouk. “Anyone can just go through their day-to-day life. Art is the layer on top that makes life worth living.”

The property was first developed nearly 100 years ago as a Wesleyan Camp. Before and after it was loaned to two churches, it served as the first home of the South Carolina Children’s Theatre from 1987 to 1990, and the city assumed control of it again in 2015, when the International Cathedral of Prayer was in two years’ default of insurance payments.

Others lobbied the city for use of the building since that time, but as officials weighed possibilities for implementing residents’ desires in the community master plan adopted last year, they saw opportunity.

It’s exactly the kind of use the Trade Street Neighborhood Association sought when group president and local resident Allison Ringer and others met with city officials a few months ago.

“That’s why most of us moved to this area in the first place, just for the downtown and how accessible it is,” said Ringer, who lives just down the road with her husband and three children. “It’s very exciting. It’s exciting that’s so short-term, too, because so much of the city planning looks to the next 15 to 20 years.”

Security enhancement and restroom expansion are part of the work already approved by City Council. Parks and Recreation Director Ann Cunningham said more renovation will be proposed for the city’s next budget cycle.

“Baseball, basketball and football are stronger than ever in Greer based on the demand for city programming and the supply of local athletes,” said City Councilman Lee Dumas. “Fortunately, as the city has grown, our ability to offer more services to our citizens has increased. I have a 5-year-old with zero interest in sports. She enjoys drawing, singing and acting. Many like her need an outlet for their interests and support developing their skills and talents in the arts, just like I enjoyed in sports. I’m excited about the new facility on Snow Street and the wealth of opportunities it will provide for expansion of the arts in Greer.”

The building will serve as the home of the Greer Cultural Arts Council, which provides an array of events, activities and programs.

“I foresee things happening here like First Fridays in downtown Greenville, where we can open up the facility and the parking lot and have other artists come in,” said Byouk. “We want to invite the community in to see what’s going on here. I think we’re going to be very transparent. Artists don’t live in a bubble. If they do, they’re not successful. We want people to come in, see what’s going on and become part of it. That’s the only way we’re going to grow.”

Renovations are being paid for with funds raised by the city’s 2-percent hospitality tax on prepared food, a fund that’s afforded projects such as Country Club Road Park, Suber Road Park, renovations to Stevens Field and Victor Park and events such as Freedom Blast in the years since it was implemented by referendum.

Danner hopes the auditorium will help lure private investment of a similar nature to the area while improving quality of life for local residents and visitors.

The development of an arts district reaching southward from downtown was a priority identified by residents during the formation of the city’s master plan.

“I’ve mentioned to a couple of people that creating an arts district is more than just designating it,” Danner said. “Those kinds of things typically happen organically, but they need a genesis somewhere. I think this could be the genesis.”

Artists offered studios with large windows overlooking the park space will apply through a process being hammered out by the city, Byouk said. Two-dimensional artists seem a natural fit for the spaces, through sculptors, potters or such may find welcome homes.

Plans call for an open gallery space near the building’s main entrance. Wiring and insulation to come in a later phase of work would enable the theater and its large stage to join the Cannon Centre and the Harley Bonds Center as venues for performances.

“I grew up in the Augusta Road area, so I kind of saw that whole transformation all around me growing up in downtown Greenville,” Ringer said. “I went to Charlotte for college, and I wasn’t going to come back to Greenville, but there were so many awesome changes going on that we decided to stay.

“We weren’t planning on staying in Greer very long, either. My husband was working in Spartanburg at that time and my family lived in Greenville, so we were like, ‘OK, we’ll just meet in the middle in Greer,’ and then Greer started making so many great changes that we said, ‘OK, we’ll just stay.’

“Here we are 10 years later. We’re so excited.”

Image above: Greer Cultural Arts Supervisor Robin Byouk surveys City Auditorium with Parks and Recreation Director Ann Cunningham