The sentiment of everyone that spoke Tuesday morning at a meeting about the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium was that both it and the Tivoli Theater remain under the ownership of the city of Chattanooga. Representatives from the auditoriums’ advisory board of directors, the steering committee, the Chattanooga City Council and the department of Education, Arts and Culture arranged the public meeting in order to receive suggestions, ideas and comments for the future of the facility.
Intended as a memorial to veterans from WWI, Memorial Auditorium opened in 1924 serving as an auditorium and all-purpose exhibition hall. As other facilities were built in the city, the focus changed and extensive renovations and improvements converted the building into a mid-sized theater and concert venue in the early 1990s. Changes were made to the building except for the smaller venue known as the Community Theater. Renovations have recently been completed for this area which has a capacity to seat 500-700. This smaller theatre will have its own identity, and the use of it was one of the topics under discussion Tuesday morning.
Missy Crutchfield, administrator of EAC, explained the need for the city to have different sized venues for various types of events. The newly opened Community Theater is visualized as a theater area that will be the most accessible for local people. With its smaller size, organizers hope to host small upcoming musical performers and competitions such as between barbershop quartets which would not fill the larger auditorium. It was noted that events such as these bring people to town and help fill up hotel rooms.
The Tivoli, which holds 1,760, is used extensively for the Symphony Orchestra, performances such as Mark Twain impersonators, and small musical groups. The largest of the city-owned venues, the main seating area of the Memorial Auditorium with a 4,000 capacity, is used for traveling productions of Broadway plays and musicals and large dance events such as Riverdance. The UTC McKenzie Arena, the largest venue in Chattanooga seating 10,000, brings higher-profile events because these have the ability to sell a lot of tickets which is needed to cover the high production costs of those performances.
Some City Council candidates have expressed the opinion that the city should get out of the business of managing the Auditorium and Tivoli Theatre, and in combining the EAC with the Department of Parks and Recreation as was done in the past. It is a political issue, said Councilman Jack Benson. When the EAC was established eight years ago, new money was not used but it was shifted from the Parks and Recreation Department to fund the new organization. Since then, buildings have been revitalized and preserved and there has been growth in this area of interest, it was stated. When under the umbrella of Parks and Recreation, historically, arts were cut first, he said.
Councilman Benson told the group that a vote in his district, if taken today, would probably result in the sale or lease of both the Auditorium and the Tivoli since Chattanooga’s costs to maintain them are around a half million in tax revenue yearly. He said that the public needs to be enlightened. He sees justification in art expenditures by the balance that aesthetic appeal provides a city. Manny Ricco cited the interest that International companies have in the arts and the intangible incentive it adds for business to locate in Chattanooga. Councilman Russell Gilbert added that not every kid plays football and that arts should be used as an alternative to encourage youth to follow interests that would lead to successful careers such as engineering
Members of the local music club have raised over $1 million to renovate the organ that is housed in the Auditorium, it was acknowledged. Another reason mentioned to maintain the city’s ownership is that volunteer organizations such as this would not provide services to a privately-owned business
Looking at the Memorial Auditorium from the viewpoint that it was dedicated to veterans of all wars, Admiral Vance Fry of the steering committee said that war memorials are never commercial enterprises. He said the facility was never intended to be self sustaining, but community supported. His focus is how to get veterans to use it more. One way this is being done is with the newly installed kiosks. These are equipped with touch screens where those that have seen active military duty can enter personal history and information. He also would like to create an eternal flame as a war memorial.
In a discussion of how to make best use of the facility as an entertainment location, Councilman Gilbert acknowledged that historically it has been difficult to bring concerts to Chattanooga. He proposed trying to bring in smaller acts which should be easier to do with the smaller Community Theater now available. He also suggested the increase of advertising.
The most concrete ideas offered up came out of the audience from an interested resident of the city. Robin Merritt, owner of Art Front Presentations, a small company in business since 1980 that produces concerts in Chattanooga and elsewhere, gave his suggestions to the organizers of the meeting.
First, he said, the facility needs better PR. In the news, he has heard that people are ranting about selling the building, yet in the meeting, he said he was hearing about support for the arts. He said to satisfy the community, high-quality, high-profile acts should be brought in, referencing concerts he attended by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. He also told officials that large traveling productions bring their own sound systems, but if the auditorium had a dedicated in-house sound system already set up, it would be a great draw for smaller performances. He also said that alcohol sales for appropriate events could contribute to the success of the theatres. He added that there is a public demand for it and as is, people bring it in anyway. A great service is provided to local entities, he said, citing the city’s policy for providing substantial discounts for non-profit organizations. Mr. Merritt also expressed the opinion that he does not believe that naming rights should be sold for the auditorium which would result in the presence of large signs.
Chairman of the advisory board Carl Smith ended by telling the group that there is much work yet to be done. He invited the enthusiastic people in the room to carry the word throughout the community to keep Memorial Auditorium a public facility. He also referenced a study several years ago to ascertain the economic impact the Auditorium had on Chattanooga. This research determined that it was the fifth-largest income producing facility for the city, and he asked “Why would we want to sell it?”