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Mountains Center deal worries theater group
Brenau president, city officials say Mountain Players wont be left out
Participants in an immigration law training session fill the Georgia Mountains Center theater last September. - photo by Tom Reed

Drama for the Georgia Mountain Players, a nonprofit Gainesville theater company, is spilling off the stage and into City Hall.

A proposal that the Georgia Mountains Center, currently operated by the city of Gainesville, be leased to Brenau University has the theater company fearing it will lose its space to perform — something university and city officials insist won't happen.

Yet to ensure its place, the theater company, which has been putting on family-friendly stage performances for 19 years, is enlisting patrons to speak out to Gainesville City Council in hopes of keeping the status quo.

"We fear that this takeover could leave many community groups without a viable venue," read a message on the theater company's website.

The Mountain Players are the most consistent users of the 30-year-old convention center built by the city to provide cultural enrichment and draw visitors downtown. In recent years, it has suffered from an inability to attract large conventions and the revenue they generate.

"When they built this place, people said it would never fill up," said Brian Massey, who works at the center. "Now they say it's too small."

Meanwhile, Brenau University is looking to expand its footprint and rise to national prominence by upgrading its Gainesville campus.

Brenau President Ed Schrader proposed the university lease the center for graduate classroom and lab space - and with that draw more students to downtown. Schrader sees a partnership with the city, local businesses and the university as a way to revitalize the downtown area with the addition of more students and more privately run student housing options.

According to Brenau's projections, the university could earn as much as $20 million in increased revenue, and the total economic impact for Northeast Georgia could reach $48 million.

The Mountains Center would be renovated if leased to Brenau. However, the biggest changes in current plans, Schrader said, are to renovate the center's spacious arena. A second floor could be added, he said, with the bottom floor potentially being used as a ballroom rather than arena.

However, no plans have been finalized. The theater would remain, he said.

Other annual mainstays like the rodeo and the gun-and-knife show may have to find a new home.

In September, Gainesville and Brenau signed a memorandum of understanding that allows the university to study the feasibility of using the center. A decision may not come until March, said a university official.

The price tag for the university to lease the center hasn't come up for serious discussion yet.

Before a final decision is made, Martin said he wants to make sure the community's interests are heard.

Beyond the fate of the Mountain Players' schedule, Martin said he has other concerns. He wants to know what will happen to the current employees of the Mountains Center. He said he's also looking out for other organizations that use the center.

"There's a lot of things that go on at the Mountains Center other than us," Martin said.

In recent weeks, The Times has received letters from readers concerned about the change. A.R. McCahan, a Gainesville resident, wrote a letter arguing that the value of community groups using the Mountains Center outweighs the interests of Brenau University.

But city and university officials say there is no conflict between those two interests.

"We have heard the concerns of the Georgia Mountain Players," said Danny Dunagan, Gainesville's mayor pro-tem. "We don't know why there is such a concern."

Dunagan said there has never been a discussion of shutting out the theater group.

"If we do enter into this agreement, the Georgia Mountain Players would be taken care," he said.

Schrader said there seems to be a misunderstanding about the university's intentions. He said the Mountain Players and other community organizations would have access to the Mountains Center.

"My feeling is," Schrader said, "the Mountain Players offer (Brenau) an opportunity to further support the arts."

He said he met with representatives from the Mountain Players weeks ago and thought there was an understanding about a continuity of use by the theater company.

Schrader said he's asking himself, "I wonder where we messed up?"

The source of the Mountain Players' recent unease seems to stem from their efforts to plan early for their 2013 season. Martin said he has been unable to carve out reservations for those performances, though they already have booked dates for 2012.

However, because the university isn't leasing the property yet, Schrader said he has no control over the schedule.

According to Carol Brown, director of the Mountains Center, 2013 isn't available for booking yet because the city attorney is revising the agreements clients must sign to reserve space.

"Once I get the revised license agreements back," she wrote in an email, "we will begin to execute all 2013 client license agreements."

Despite promises from city and university officials, the Mountain Players and their supporters seem to distrust the potential change.

"(With the city), we were told we would always have a home and a place to perform," Martin said. "With a new landlord, we would have no guarantees of when we would get the theater or what the cost would be."

While the primary use of the center would be for education purposes, Schrader said, the university can only gain from community involvement.

"The biggest difference," Schrader said, "is we'd want to keep it busy."

On Friday, Schrader said he's already reaching out to the Mountain Players and their supporters. He's asking for another meeting to ease their concerns.

"I think we can put it to bed," he said.