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Does Gwinnett value its arts? Ask the Aurora

Does Gwinnett County value the arts? Do we treasure them as we should? Do our communities recognize the benefits art?

For those who have been following the script written by the Aurora Theatre performing arts group over the last few months, there should be no doubt that Gwinnett County values its art. Indeed, the Aurora could have cast itself as the protagonist in its own version of "A Tale of Two Cities."

For most of the past year, the theater has been courted by two Gwinnett cities: Duluth, where the Aurora was born and raised, and Lawrenceville, which wants live theater to help revitalize the downtown's Historic Square.

Both cities coveted the 30,000 patrons who would travel downtown to the entertainment venue.

Duluth has hosted the Aurora ever since it was a fledgling troupe making its stage debut. Now nearly 10 years old, the thespians are packing their bags and heading down Ga. Highway 120.

Many community theater groups struggle to survive; they are the "starving artists." But the Aurora found itself the well-fed beneficiary of a bidding war. There were offers and counter-offers, each one topping the last. The professional group sat back, watched the volleys and waited for the offer it couldn't refuse.

That offer came from Lawrenceville, where on Thursday, Mayor Bobby Sikes gave a key to the city (reportedly the first time this honor has been bestowed) to the Aurora's artistic director Anthony Rodriguez. The official announcement and press conference were held on the steps of the old Methodist church - the 100-year-old building that will be expanded and renovated and become the actors' new home in the fall of 2006.

Both cities fought hard over several months. The Aurora needed room to grow and city officials scrambled to put together some sweet deals to accommodate.

Lawrenceville is in the midst of a gargantuan revitalization effort - a rebirth designed to turn a stagnant square into a vibrant destination. Duluth has already built its Town Green and boasts a quaint, spirited downtown area. No doubt that the Aurora helped that renaissance. Lawrenceville leaders are banking on the theater playing a similar role for them.

But there is some separation anxiety for Duluth and the acting troupe it embraced so strongly for a decade. The Aurora will continue to perform in the city for at least another season that will include performances of "Chicago," "The Nerd," "Christmas Canteen," "Wait Until Dark," "The Toad and the Frog" and "Guys and Dolls."

Rodriguez expressed the theater's appreciation and affinity for Duluth. "We thank them for the many years of support. They have been like proud parents that have raised a wonderful child and are sending them off to college."

Despite the city's efforts to keep the Aurora, Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter wished them well. "We are very sad they are going to leave and we wish them the best, but we will have to deal with the future of our city."

It is clear then that these Gwinnett cities value the arts - not just for the thrill of the performance, but for the role they assume in a lively city center. And it appears that for a long time, the Aurora won't have to play the role of starving artist.