Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)
Monday September 6, 2010
ROANE’S ROAD TO RECOVERY; Pg. 1
Theater rehab debated
By BOB FOWLER fowlerb
HARRIMAN -Wayne Best owns two businesses downtown, and he would naturally benefi t should that area get a new lease on life. But Best looks askance at a revitalization plan for the area that’s anchored by the renovation of an old theater.
"Harriman has a lot more issues than the Princess Theater," Best said.
The lion’s share of a $43 million windfall from TVA, awarded a year ago to help offset TVA’s disastrous December 2008 ash spill, has been claimed.
But some Harriman residents say the city didn’t get its fair share and that the money the city received isn’t being spent wisely.
Even TVA executive Anda Ray, on the eight-member Roane County Economic Development Foundation that approves funding requests, at first wondered about spending money on the theater.
She asked fellow foundation members last September how the Princess project fit in the plan to offset the negative impact of the ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant.
But Ray and other foundation members then quickly approved the project.
Those who support the $1.7 million TVA allocation for renovation of the Princess say the theater will kick-start a downtown renaissance.
More events and activities in and around the Princess will bring in more people and spur the startup of more businesses downtown, they contend.
But there’s an undercurrent of grumbling from some residents.
Harriman didn’t get enough of the TVA money, they say.
What payout Harriman received should have been spent instead to upgrade crumbling roads and other infrastructure, they contend, and a select few made the key decisions without much input from residents.
"I don’t feel like we spent the money in the right place," Best said. "We’re spending money on a theater, and it’s really not our culture."
Randy Ellis, elected to the Roane County Commission last month, said a "certain political sect" rammed the funding plan through.
"I don’t think the theater was embraced by the community as a whole," Ellis said. "I’ve heard a lot of people who are upset that we’ve got roads falling apart but we put almost $2 million in a theater."
Along with the $1.7 million for the Princess, Harriman was awarded $200,000 for improvements to the city’s library and $100,000 for road paving.
"The way the money was split up, I still don’t understand how Kingston received $5 million," said Ellis, who represents the Harriman area.
"We got $3 million less. Harriman got the short end of the stick. Kingston came out of this whole situation good, but other cities came out on the bad end.
"We should have been better organized. That’s mismanagement by our mayor."
In contrast, Harriman Mayor Chris Mason said restoration of the Princess Theater has been the city’s top goal for years and that priority was set in a series of meetings and City Council workshops.
"This has all been done in the open since day one," Mason said.
The city was looking for additional funding for the Princess project when the TVA funds became available, he said.
The $1.7 million in TVA money considerably speeds up the city’s downtown revitalization efforts, Mason said.
"Any good revitalization will take about 10 years," he said, "and this propelled us three or four years ahead."
The restoration project, Mason said last year, "is the best news that Harriman has had in the last 40-plus years."
Work on the Princess Theater is now under way and is targeted for a late winter or early spring completion.
The Princess is on the city’s main drag – Roane Street – and next to several downtown buildings soon to be emptied by the relocation of Roane Medical Center.
It’s had a colorful 84-year history – opened in 1926, damaged by fire six years later and destroyed by fire in 1939.
The 900-seat theater was rebuilt in 1939 with an Art Deco design and was one of the South’s first theaters billed as fireproof. During its heyday in World War II, it screened three showings daily to sold-out audiences.
"What’s there now is a renovation from the 1950s when the road was widened," said Frank Sparkman, the architect in charge of the renovation.
"What’s there now is not the 1939 version. That’s our goal: to put the Princess back to what it looked like in 1939."
The Princess closed in 1999. Businessman Gary Baker and Hollywood actor Muse Watson bought the building two years later and gave it to Harriman in 2007.
It will become much more than a theater when it reopens, say Sparkman and others.
"This is a crucial element in making downtown Harriman economically viable again," Sparkman said.
The theater’s interior is being redesigned as a multipurpose auditorium for a variety of events, including large meetings, reunions, concerts and the screening of special movies.
The city’s new public access TV station, operated by Roane State Community College, will broadcast in the building. College classes in media production, lighting, stage production and sound design are envisioned.
Two adjoining buildings are being renovated to create an expanded lobby that will serve as a visitors center for a "trailhead project.”
The state awarded a $317,846 grant to renovate the lobby and upgrade the rest rooms to Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
Along with a showcase for historical memorabilia, the lobby will serve as the trailhead for a downtown walking trail and the Cornstalk Heights Walking Trail, as well as driving tours of the area.
"I think the Princess is going to be phenomenal for downtown," businesswoman and community activist Pat Mynatt said.
"Several people have put their faith in the revitalization and realization of again having a great little town by opening new businesses downtown," she stated in an e-mail.
Mynatt said she and two partners have opened an antique store and are already considering an expansion. Other antiques dealers are eyeing buildings downtown, she said, and a bakery and motorcycle shop are new additions to the area.
Bob Fowler, News Sentinel. Anderson County editor, may be reached at 865-481-3625.