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This man's virtuoso performance can't be overlooked

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Leon Mooneyhan is beating the drum for an arts/convention/performance center in Shelbyville. We have to listen to his song.

By Steve Doyle

Leon Mooneyhan has taken on the role of the “music man” in Shelby County, trumpeting his vision for a downtown performance and convention center and scoring his own little symphony out of the sometimes discordant notes he hears.

When I first chatted with Mooneyhan about his concept of a “City Center” for Shelbyville, about three years ago on a Saturday morning in the historic home of a mutual friend, it was – mixing my metaphors here – as if he were preaching a sermon while I was right behind him, wearing a robe and singing bass.

That’s when he took his show on the road and started to march down Main Street with far fewer than 76 trombones but still a parade of those who embraced his tune, his notes clear on the idea of developing the property in the block bounded by Main, Washington, 8th and 9th streets as a place for an “if-we-build-it-they-will-come” center.

It’s a powerful, straight-forward sonata – all for the gain of the community and nothing personally for Leon Mooneyhan. But that’s what you would expect.

Many of you know Mooneyhan far better than I. He has been your school superintendent, your arts supporter, your charitable leader, your friend and neighbor, your public citizen par excellence. You recognize his character and understand what you will get from him – an intelligent perspective, a diligent persistence and a commitment to doing something he believes is right and for the greater good.

He loves the Shelby County Community Theatre, which would be part of this project. He sees this parcel as being in a good place to enhance downtown Shelbyville while embracing its history and the cultural growth of our county. He has through many downbeats – or beat downs – kept that crescendo building.

And if you ever saw The Music Man, the Broadway musical later translated to cinema, you know that Mooneyhan is really nothing like Harold Hill, the character created by Robert Preston. You know he speaks in measured tones and avoids the bombastics. His lyrics are simple, his background a string melody. The bass drum would not be his instrument of choice.

But you have to listen to him. And now we all should listen.

This City Center is an idea for the future of Shelbyville and Shelby County. It is a vision that would form our development, create a better self image, bring together a burgeoning arts community with our history and elegance to build a destination. It is a partner for the Blue Gables project, a beacon for the downtown businesses that we need to grow and prosper, a magnet for our hopes for the East End and 7th Street corridors.

This isn’t a direct quote, but if you were to ask Bob and Sue Andriot at Bell House, one of our fine restaurants, they would tell you that it is activities at the community theater, a half-block away, that drives their peaks in patrons.

Imagine what they – and others – might say if performances now sprinkled across a monthly schedule were expanded into almost weekly performances by arts groups and occasional conferences that would gather in that block. That could happen. But only if we listen.

Citizens Union Bank, Don and Greta Prather and Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty have listened, and they have acted. They have helped create the property base required for the center by donating real estate – or in Hardesty’s case agreeing to hold donated property – for this purpose.

That’s because if Mooneyhan is a music man, he also is part tent revivalist, gathering those who would listen and offering his words as images of potential realities.

He had just such a revival last week, and his tent was pitched in the library of West Middle School. Dozens of you showed up, and this time Mooneyhan brought in a guest from Oldham County to offer a new trill: the concept of a school-based center that could be an educational boon for Shelby County along with providing the performance and meeting space so many had envisioned.

If you don’t know the story, Oldham County Public Schools, using the support of Oldham County Fiscal Court, purchased the old Baptist church in Crestwood and converted it into a performance, educational and learning center for both students and the community. It has a big budget and makes a nice profit.

I have visited that center. My children have taken courses there in art and music. I have seen the potential and been baptized in its waters of artistic salvation.

Yes, Oldham is a bigger and richer county than Shelby, but if you want to build something worthwhile, you have to create it and allow the community to grow into it.

Just think what we might have if decades ago, when First Christian Church abandoned its buildings on the corner of 4th and Main streets, there had been a Leon Mooneyhan to suggest that the facility be adapted for an arts/education/performance/convention center.

The building would have been a great core in a great location, an auditorium in place to be adapted and meeting rooms for learning. We likely would not be having this conversation.

That’s what they have in Crestwood, and it should not simply be a pipe dream to want one here. To plagiarize a Kennedy, it’s time we should dream of things that never have been and ask “why not?”

Some of you have the power to make this happen, to join Mooneyhan’s group and add your support, your backing and your ideas to see it to fruition.

And if you do, you will realize that Mooneyhan really isn’t a bandleader at all but a man trying to conduct a symphony, a Leonard Bernstein batoning a composition, trying to ensure that the promise of the strings drowns out the percussionists who generate negative noise.

If you pay attention, it’s a beautiful sound, the overture of our children and grandchildren.