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Norcross center plans on hold

NORCROSS - Plans for a nearly $6 million cultural arts center are on hold.

Chalk up the production delay to creative differences.

After putting $92,000 toward preliminary engineering on a new Norcross Cultural Arts Center, the City Council has halted further spending on the project. Instead, the city wants to determine the cost of a comprehensive downtown study that analyzes the potential for new retail development between Cemetery Street and City Hall.

The new arts center at College and Jones streets has been on the drawing board for more than a year. It would use Special Purpose Local Option dollars Norcross voters approved in 2004 for "cultural, historic and recreation" projects.

Initial plans created the center from scratch on an old school house site where a log cabin now stands. The land overlooks the city's ball field.

Now, some council members feel that renovating a former Catholic church - which stands next to the field - might prove less costly.

The cultural arts center is becoming as divisive as it is ambitious.

Mayor Lillian Webb, Councilmen Bruce Smith and David McLeroy support its basic concept - an eye-catching building with a theater and senior center overlooking downtown and Buford Highway.

Councilman Charlie Riehm, who won election last fall promising tighter control on city finances, has several doubts about the center, including its potential to drain city coffers.

His uncertainties have been echoed by council allies Michael Lovelady and fellow newcomer Terry Bowie.

Webb is frustrated the cultural arts center is in limbo.

The mayor said it complements upgrades to the aging commercial areas along Buford Highway, which are slated to become part of a self-taxing district. Norcross has given $30,000 to the Gwinnett Village Community Improvement Association - a group of business and political leaders leading the self-taxing effort.

Webb likened the theater to a beacon on a hill that draws people - and commerce - to the city's downtown.

"I hope we do not have to wait (a) long time with this," Webb said. "This is supposed to be a major component of that SPLOST vote. Major funding was to go to this building."

The impasse comes as other cities move forward with key projects.

Suwanee recently announced it picked developers to buy the last available tract in its new made-from-scratch downtown. Duluth has landed a new theater company.

Lawrenceville is transforming a 100-year-old church near its downtown square into a performing arts center for use by the Aurora Theatre, which is moving from Duluth to Lawrenceville in December.