As the Lawrenceville Arts Center’s first group of visitors — mostly city officials — wrapped up the first tour of the facility’s grand opening weekend, they raised glasses of champagne alongside Aurora Theatre officials for a toast to a new beginning.

Or rather, a future of possibility, as Aurora co-founder Ann-Carol Pence described it.

“We are toasting to making a million more dreams come true in a space that we are dedicating to being a beacon of hope for what a community of belonging should be, cheers,” Pence told the group as she led that first toast.

After two years of construction, Lawrenceville this weekend officially crossed the finish line for its new $35 million arts center. The three-day grand opening celebration tours, which run through Sunday, are expected to bring about 1,000 visitors through the facility.

Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington said the three-day grand opening celebration, which include VIP tours as well as front of stage and backstage tours, are being done in lieu of a traditional ribbon cutting ceremony.

“We’re trying to show off the entire facility instead of just having one big event for a ribbon cutting,” Warbington said. “This is the first official opportunity for the public to come and see (the Lawrenceville Arts Center) all weekend.

“This is a time to celebrate this investment and this gift to the community by the city.”

The VIP grand opening tours offered on Friday night gave attendees a full view of the front of stage and backstage areas of the new facility, including the outdoor courtyard performance space, the Bartow and Leslie Morgan Cabaret Theater, the Borders Rehearsal Hall, the Peach State Federal Credit Union Grand Lobby, the Mary Kistner Gallery, the Thurmon Family Costume Shop and the dressing rooms before ending on the stage of the 500-seat grand stage theater.

Along the way, performers from the Aurora Theatre, as well as local performing groups and entertainers, gave performances for tour participants.

“It’s overwhelming (to reach the opening),” Aurora co-founder Anthony Rodriguez said. “It’s the culmination of so many things and so many dreams, not just ours, but the dreams of artists and a city and a county, and everything just coming together at one time.

“What a beautiful thing that we’ve been able create this beautiful Lawrenceville Arts Center coming out of, well hopefully coming out of, a pandemic so that folks can once again gather and enjoy each other’s company and experience live entertainment in a facility that I will just say is absolutely beyond compare.”

Lawrenceville Mayor David Still said the facility fits into the city’s vision of being a home to a thriving arts community. The center is seen as a space to help foster relationships between the city, the Aurora and local institutions, such as Georgia Gwinnett College and the School of the Arts at Central Gwinnett High School.

“It puts the city where we want it to be, as a river of art,” Still said. “We want to take people, from the cradle to professional, and cover them in art. We are an international community that appreciates art and so we need art throughout the city and having performing arts and all arts is what we need here in the city to promote relationships and build our community.”

City officials are keen to point out while the facility will house the Aurora Theatre, they want it to be referred to as the Lawrenceville Arts Center.

The Aurora is contracted with the city to manage and operate the facility, and will be its main permanent tenant, but Lawrenceville officials are concerned that colloquially calling it simply the Aurora Theatre will give the arts community and the general community the wrong impression about who can use the space.

In addition to housing the Aurora, the facility is intended to also be rented out to other local performing groups as well as touring productions and performers. It is also designed so part of the facility can host other events, such as wedding receptions.

“If we call it the Aurora Theatre, then people will think only the Aurora can use it,” city spokeswoman Melissa Hardegee said.

One way to look at the diversity of who will be using the center is to look at its first few shows.

The first-ever show on the grand theater stage will be by comedian Henry Cho on Oct. 30 as part of the Aurora Comedy Nights series.

The Aurora will stage the very first multi-night production — its annual Christmas Canteen — at the facility from Nov. 26 until Dec. 23. The second production to be staged at the center, which will overlap with Christmas Canteen, will be a facility rental: Southern Ballet Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker,” from Dec. 16 to Dec. 19.

The Aurora will also stage its upcoming season at the new facility, kicking off with Christmas Canteen and also including “Feeding Beatrice” from Jan. 20 to Feb. 6, “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” from March 10 to April 3 and “Swindlers” from May 19 to June 6.

And, Warbington teased that there will be announcements forthcoming about outside groups who will be renting the center for their productions.

“Now that word is getting out that this is open, theres been a lot of interest (in renting the center),” Warbington said.

The grand opening weekend tours will continue through Sunday and tickets can be purchased at www.auroratheatre.com.

I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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