Barrow considers arts center

WINDER - The persistence of Barrow County's Commission and Board of Education members could earn residents a $10.5 million cultural arts / convention center at Ga. highways 316 and 53. County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison visualizes a venue similar to the Arena at Gwinnett Center and hopes to rely heavily on private funding, rather than bonds.

The project began in 1999 when Board of Education members discussed building a large auditorium to accommodate Apalachee and Winder-Barrow High Schools. That concept evolved into a proposed intragovernmental agreement in which the county and school board would combine their resources to build a cultural arts center with outlying commercial / retail tracts for hotels and restaurants.

School board member Lynn Stevens questioned from where the idea for the impressive complex came.

"How did our $1.1 million auditorium become a $10.5 million convention center?" she asked in the initial work session Jan. 29.

The two entities have a combined $4.5 million in sales tax money to spend. But $4.5 million doesn't buy what it used to. Garrison figures the county will need an additional $6 million to construct the facility they envision.

"We realize we don't have $10.5 million, but I believe the community will step up," Garrison answered. "We may have to bond the money."

Plans show a proposed 1,000-seat performing arts theater, a 50,000-square-foot convention center and 3,000 square feet of office space. The two-part facility would hold an auditorium and banquet-exhibit hall. It could accommodate 7,100 occupants for an event and 3,300 occupants for a banquet setting.

The school board would manage and maintain the facility and be responsible for scheduling. The county would provide water, sewer and insurance for the building.

The facility, if built, would be available first for school functions, second for governmental functions with general public functions third in line for its use.

In June 2006, Barrow County bought 275 acres at the intersection of Ga. 316 and 53 for the purpose of developing an industrial center. The county took out a 20-year, $15 million bond to pay $11 million for the land and run infrastructure. If the two parties reach an agreement, the school board will contribute $1.5 million and the county will pitch in $3 million, both from the Special Purpose Local Option Sale Tax, and a chunk of acreage, the size of which is still undetermined.