Past as a Prologue: New art center important culturally, economically

The opening of the Brenau University’s John S. Burd Center for the Performing Arts is much more important to this community than just the addition of one more fine building on the school’s campus. It makes a major statement about the cultural commitment we find in Gainesville, about our sense of community, and probably more importantly, about the quality of life this community offers the citizens of all Northeast Georgia.

This cultural base is one of the great economic assets we have, even though we seldom think of culture as having a direct link to business. Put it this way: if we are attempting to entice a new industry to locate here, and that industry is also looking seriously at another city, very often that industry will go to the community with the best “quality of life.” And, how do you think people from the outside measure quality of life? There are the usual things: schools, churches, personal pride in homes and community. But the one thing that almost always tips the scales in favor of one town over another is the obvious commitment to cultural activities – giving people the opportunity to participate in what is generally referred to as “the finer things of life.”

Gainesville has always had a large cadre of people willing to support the arts, and it has had some visible buildings to show for it. There as a large Opera House on one corner of the downtown square in the late 1800’s (it burned in 1925). Pearce Auditorium was build about 1897, before the university carried the name Brenau. At that time, Pearce was said to be the finest concert hall in Georgia, outranked only by “The Grand” in Atlanta.

The Quinlan Visual Art Center was built in the 1950’s, a gift to the community from Leslie Quinlan. The Arts Council acquired and remodeled the old downtown railroad station in the 1990’s, and it now carries the name of one of its principal benefactor families, the Smithgalls. Now this same group has acquired the old First Methodist Church downtown.

Most cultural structures, as with the John S. Burd Center for the Performing Arts, are built with private contributions. Government has also contributed to the cultural base here in Hall County… the Gainesville Civic Center, the Georgia Mountains Center, Gainesville College and other facilities… designed for, and fully available for cultural activities.

The new arts center on Brenau’s campus, however, is not merely another addition to the visible cultural assets of Gainesville; it is spectacular, one of Georgia’s leading arts centers and holding a position similar to that held by Pearce Auditorium some 100 years ago. If you were touring an industrial prospect through the community, what better to sow them than the John S. Burd Center for the Performing Arts?

Interestingly, the new center is the first wave of a series of new cultural facilities in Gainesville. The Quinlan is in the final states of putting together significant funding for a major addition to the fine Green Street center. The North Georgia History Center is planning to break ground on a new building across from the John S. Burd Center, and adjacent to the existing White Path Indian Cabin. The extensive construction and addition at Riverside Military Academy, and there are others.

We don’t tend to think cultural facilities as an important part of our economy; we put these in place for other reasons. But anyone who has ever been involved in economic development, and especially recruiting new industry to an area, will quickly tell you “quality of life,” “sense of community” are two of the most important assets any community can have. And most often, these are measured by the community’s obvious commitment to cultural activities. Gainesville has a history of investing in things cultural. The tradition continues.

Gordon Sawyer is a retired advertising executive, author of several history books, chairman of the North Georgia Journal, a history commentator on WDUN Radio and an admitted, addicted history buff.