EARLIER: City Center proposal greeted with open arms

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By Scotty McDaniel



Extra chairs had to be brought out for last minute seating, and there were still several people standing in the back as more than 100 strong crammed into the Stratton Community Center on Monday night to hear about a potential downtown "City Center.”

Presenter Leon Mooneyhan said he was pleasantly surprised as he watched the overflow crowd pour in.

"It was greater than I anticipated,” said Mooneyhan, former superintendent of Shelby County Public Schools and now chief executive officer of Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative. "But that’s good. If you don’t get something out there, it can’t get done.”

He said he was just as surprised when nobody in the massive crowd expressed anything other than support for the project.

"The tone of it was just very positive. We really didn’t hear any negatives. We had some good questions. I’m encouraged to move to the next step,” he said.

He began the hour-long session by reminding those in attendance that the ideas he would be proposing were just that: ideas.

"What you’ll be seeing this evening is not a project that’s written in stone. It’s a concept. It’s a vision; but it’s a starting point,” he said.

The site being considered is the area around the current Shelby County Community Theatre, at the corner of 8th and Main Streets, and it would incorporate all existing facilities except the downtown branch of Citizens Union Bank.

Presenting a slideshow of drawings, Mooneyhan showed the floor plans, parking plans and streetscape of a facility he said early estimates project would cost around $9.2 million to build.

The research for such a facility began in 2007 when Mooneyhan began searching for additional meeting and conference space for OVEC to use. During this time, he said architect Mark Bradley asked Mooneyhan a question that changed the direction of the quest.

"Is there something where you can do something downtown where you can meet the needs of OVEC for conference space, but where you can have conference space for the community, and also at the same time do something for Shelby County Community Theatre?”

Mooneyhan, a longtime theater supporter, thought the expanded idea was great, and engineer Kerry Magan also was brought in to help develop plans.

Their early efforts culminated Monday as Mooneyhan revealed plans for a 5,730 square feet of conference and presentation space capable of holding up to 200 people, with the capability to divide the space into four breakout rooms. The meeting space would be available to more than just local groups.

"We would certainly have the potential of marketing the conference center for outside groups, conference and conventions,” Mooneyhan said.

But the largest chunk of the plan is a 13,770-square-foot, 300-seat theater, complete with stadium seating, an orchestra pit, and high ceilings to allow for easy set transitions.

A lobby of 11,200 square feet would have high ceilings with windows, allowing for natural light to enter.

Schools, the community theater and other organizations would be able to use the theater for programs and productions.

It would be built on the northwest corner of the current theater, which would remain functioning on the site.

"It’s very important that we retain that space. It works very well for a number of different kinds of venues,” he said. "However, there’s a lot a need for a larger theater. For example -- for musicals, for children’s performances like Seussical -- we could fit [the production] in a much larger theater very easily.”  

Beneath those facilities would be 63 parking spaces to accommodate guests, and the center would be accessible through the use of a drive-thru plaza entrance that would be large enough for school buses.  

Two of the area’s historic houses would become part of the project. The Lea House (a gray house just west of the theater) is currently owned by SCCT and sits right next to it.

"That particular house would be relocated to the [west] end of the conference center just beside Citizens Union Bank,” he said. "The utilization would be for a kitchen food prep area for the conference center.”

The other house, located on 8th Street between Operation Care and Shelby the community theater, would not be moved and would become dressing rooms for the theaters.

"All ancillary facilities would be used by the existing theater and the new one,” he said.

The plan also envisions acquiring Operation Care and using it to hold properties, scenery, storage, set construction for the theater.

"That’d work well with the project, but it’s not 100 percent essential,” he said. "We don’t want to do anything in this project that would hurt the operation. As a matter of fact, my goal is to get them to enhance their operation.”

Judy Roberts, executive director of Operation Care, said the project is a touchy subject, because she thinks it’s an awesome idea, but as director of a homeless shelter, it raises some important questions.

"I love the look of the design, and I think it’s going to be a great improvement to this block. My concern is, does Operation Care fit into the image that will be portrayed with this new city center?” she asked.

If Operation Care needs to relocate, that raises even more questions.

"Where do we go? How do we fund where we’re going? There are not very many facilities in the downtown area that would accommodate us. There are just a lot of questions there,” she said.

Neighboring Citizens Union Bank would be not be touched by the project.  

Benefits and feasibility   

Mooneyhan said the benefits of the project stretch to many entities in the community.

"The idea is that the 300-seat new theater could be used for the elementary and middle school students to have a first-class performance space,” he said.

With more space come more opportunities for performances and revenue for the theater community itself.

Overall, he said the entire block in downtown Shelbyville would benefit from beautification, having vacant space filled, maintaining historic district properties, all while increasing the potential for economic development.

But how is a project like this funded to begin with?

"The first thing would be that if we have multiple partners that would contribute, it makes it a whole lot more feasible if you can split it up any number of ways,” he said. "By having partners, together we can do something that no single entity could do.”

Another way of making the plan a reality is through donation, he said.

Though no official financial support has yet been agreed to by any of the potential partners, there has been a significant anonymous bid from one citizen, and there is still overwhelming support for the idea from community leaders.

Potential partners include OVEC, the Shelby County Public Schools, the Shelby County Community Theatre, the Shelby County Industrial & Development Foundation, the City of Shelbyville, and the Shelby County Fiscal Court.

These groups were well represented at the presentation Monday, with several officials stepping up to the microphone to offer their support of the project.

"I see no reason why we couldn’t do a project like this,” Mayor Tom Hardesty said. "If we stall out on this project, we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.”

County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger applauded Mooneyhan for his hard work in getting the plan developed and said Fiscal Court completely supports it.

"A community is not really complete until you have cultural arts and humanities,” he said.

Industrial Foundation President Bobby Hudson added, "You have to take a leap of faith and do it.”

Even though money is tight for the school district as the construction of Martha Layne Collins High School progresses, Superintendent James Neihof said the schools would still offer "cautious” support.

"We’d take advantage of having the bigger space. Without a doubt we’d take advantage of that opportunity,” he said.

Other citizens spoke in support of the project, including teachers and students who discussed the importance of theater opportunities in a community.

Because planning is still merely in the idea phase, the next step will be for a team to form, composed of representatives from entities that decide to partner on the project. This group would iron out the specific funding and project details to get the ball rolling.

"I just appreciate the community members and the officials coming out on a Monday night to hear about a potential plan for the community. I was encouraged that there was a lot of support. I look forward to taking it to the next step,” Mooneyhan said.