Drama surrounding what to do with the theater in city-owned Brook Run Park continues to roil Dunwoody City Council and residents divided over renovating or tearing down the building closed nearly two decades ago.
Supporters of renovating the shuttered building in Brook Run Park showed up in force at the Feb. 22 City Council meeting to urge the council to back a plan to renovate it into a new community theater and meeting center for perhaps close to $20 million.
But some council members continued to make clear they have doubts such a theater should be located in the city park. And before the meeting ended, one council member asked staff to bring cost estimates to demolish the building to the next council meeting.
Brook Run Theater feasibility study
The theater building, owned by the city as part of park property, is the last remaining structure of 17 buildings in the park, including the hospital building, that were once part of the Georgia Retardation Center. The Georgia Retardation Center was closed in the late 1990s.
John Graham of the Tomlinson-Graham Group, which conducted a Brook Run Theater feasibility study for the Brook Run Conservancy, said his group determined there was very little theater space in Dunwoody. The Stage Door Players perform in a one-room “marginally acceptable performance site” while others performances typically take place in religious institutions or Jewish community centers.
There is also a lack of gathering space in the city for community meetings, town halls and for senior citizens, Graham explained.
“We believe the theater can be renovated to meet those needs,” he said. “This has to be an extremely flexible theater; it must be multi-purpose. It has to be properly managed and staffed.”
The study estimates rehabilitating and equipping the theater would cost, on the low end, about $7.5 million, and on the high end, approximately $18 million.
Councilman Terry Nall asked how many people were interviewed as part of the feasibility study.
“We conducted 48 one-on-one interviews. We saw some of them two or three times and also held small group meetings,” Graham said.
“Who made up the 48?” Nall asked. “I know the council was included. But it seems you are double-counting.”
“There was not a lot of double-counting,” Graham said. “In a study like this, we usually have 25-30 interviews. This is considerably larger.”
“I didn’t see any interviews with the Dunwoody Nature Center. How did you decide who to interview?” Nall asked.
Names were given to him by the Brook Run Conservancy steering committee, Graham said.
“I think what I’m hearing is was this a legitimate sample group. We believe it is,” Graham said.
“Many people question its location. It is where it is. The location has the opportunity to liven that park at night, and activity turns away crime,” Graham added.
Danny Ross, president of the Brook Run Conservancy, told council members he has experience as a fundraiser and the project has the potential to receive funding from wealthy donors, grants and tax credits as well as, hopefully, city funding.
Renovating the existing building would also be significantly less than the estimated $25 million to build a new facility, he added.
“If we are interested in a theater being part of our community, this is the most economical way to do that. We think this is a worthwhile project. But it is up to you,” Ross said to applause from attendees.
City study on theater building
City Engineer Kevin McOmber reiterated what he told the council last year – that it would cost up to $7 million to renovate the theater.
“Back in June last year I estimated renovations of the building would be $150 to $200 per square feet. That’s still a good number,” he said.
But total renovations to include such things as a sprinkler system and improved accessibility to meet American with Disability Act (ADA) guidelines, would bring the total closer to $10 million to $12 million, he said. “That’s a good bit more than we discussed,” he said.
The city is currently updating its Parks and Recreation Master Plan and a survey seeking public input is expected to be mailed out in the near future.
“My review of the [feasibility] report is that there are a number of people in the community who are very supportive of the arts and having a theater in the community,” he added.
The history and background of the Georgia Retardation Center and especially of the theater are very interesting, McOmber noted. But the feasibility study did not take into account the city’s updating of its park plan.
“[M]ost important, is the theater compatible with the new park plan, or vice versa,” he added.
‘Think outside the box’
In making his presentation to the council, Ross touched on the feasibility study the Conservancy gave to council members in January.
“We worked diligently over six to eight months to put together the feasibility study,” Ross said. “But this is not our decision; it’s your decision because it belongs to the city.”
Ross also gave some background on the Conservancy, saying it was formed in 2006 to work with DeKalb County to “make Brook Run the best it can be.” He said the Brook Run Conservancy worked with the county on such projects as construction of the popular skate park and demolition of the hospital building.
Dunwoody resident Don Boykin told the council he believed the theater question facing the city is about vision.
“Our vision for what we wanted for our city is far greater than what the obstacles would tell us,” he said. “We need to think outside the box. The building has good bones. The real question is what kind of city does Dunwoody want to be?” Boykin said. “I encourage we start thinking of vision instead of looking at obstacles and thinking short term.”
A 40-year resident, who said he is a supporter of Brook Run and theater, expressed frustration with the council.
“I’m not feeling the love. It concerns me the council can’t wait to make a resolution and kill it. We are the citizens of this city. This is not a kingdom,” he said.
Cheryl Summers said she is passionate about Brook Run Theater and that she is “willing to put my limited physical and financial resources on this project.”
Debbie Fuse of Stage Door Players also urged City Council to support the theater, saying the theater company would be able to put on larger performances and also offering more training and education to children. “To me, it’s really about providing theater and arts to the community,” she said.
Nall asked to poll the council to see how it members felt about the theater. However, Mayor Denis Shortal denied his request. Council members discussed the issue at its Feb. 5 retreat and said it was time to move on and put the theater discussion behind them.
“Are we going to do something on this? We have a park plan on the way. I think we should take a poll of council and see if we have consensus,” said Nall.
“All it is is a presentation tonight. That’s all there is. You can put that on the next agenda,” Shortal responded.
“Gathering consensus does not take a vote,” Nall said.
“We’ll do it at the next meeting,” Shortal said.
Right before the more than three-hour meeting adjourned, however, Nall directed city staff to add another agenda item to the next council meeting – what is the estimated cost to demolish the theater building.