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Plan for arts center unveiled

CONYERS - A plan among those active in the arts community here would convert the D. Morgan Gallery building into an art gallery and education center that could become a much-needed economic engine in Olde Town Conyers.

Jeff Beech of the Beech Foundation and Fran Jones, chairwoman of the Conyers-Rockdale Council for the Arts, discussed the plan Monday with the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners.

Beech said he is willing to purchase the D. Morgan building on Commercial Street for the purpose of establishing the arts gallery and center. Beech said he believes such a center can nurture local artists and develop an interest in the arts while providing a venue to bring in art from out of town.

Of equal importance, Beech said, is that such a facility could provide a much-needed boost to Olde Town by bringing what he called "a multi-stop destination."

Once the commercial center of Rockdale County, the Olde Town district has in recent years become less diverse. The area is dominated by offices occupied by attorneys doing business at the Rockdale County Courthouse.

The center would create the foot traffic of patrons, students and artists, while encouraging businesses to take root in the historic district, Beech said.

"My wife's family is from here and goes back to the 1800s, and we've become concerned that there's not more development, more economic development or more movement into Olde Town," he said. "Law offices and CPAs are great, but they are not something I would want to bring my kids to."

Beech and Jones said they have a contract on the purchase of the two-story building. They said support from the city and county is needed to close the deal and provide seed money to get the gallery started.

They said $75,000 would be needed in the first year. Jones said she expected the arts and education center would operate at a loss, at first, but eventually become self-sufficient. Jones said the business approach is to make the arts center be self-supporting through the sale of artwork, rental space and revenue from art classes.

An idea was floated during discussion that the Board of Commissioners contribute $50,000, while the city of Conyers provide $15,000.

Jones reiterated that she believes an arts gallery could support itself. She said that belief rang true recently after she was named interim executive director of the arts council. Jones said she had to turn down two calls from artists looking for space to show their work because none exists here.

"There is a market out there, and I think we can attract that if we give it a place to land," Jones said.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Middlebrooks said he was supportive of the plan, but cautioned that the economic downturn has hurt county tax revenue.

"It's a tight budget year, but I don't have a problem with helping out," he said. "It's just a matter of finding the money, and I will have to check with the finance department."

Commissioner Jason Hill, an Olde Town resident, supported the plan. Commissioner JaNice Van Ness also supported the plan, but suggested a six-month budget review to see if the arts center needed the remainder of the $75,000.

Jones explained they were conservative in coming up with the $75,000 amount as the minimum to run the arts center in the first year. Also, Jones said the education component would eventually generate most of the revenue for the center, and that part may take longer to establish.

Beech said the city of Conyers has been notified of the plan. Conyers spokeswoman Jennifer Harper said the city council will discuss the arts center at the council's next meeting Wednesday.

As for a time frame, Beech said he could close on the building this month if he has an indication of support from the city and county governments. The building would likely be ready for renovation in the fall, with the art gallery possibly open early next year.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.