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Staff, Stakeholders Directed To Continue Investigation Into Blowing Rock Fire Station, Ensemble Stage Home

By Jesse Wood

Dec. 19, 2013. After hearing a proposal at its December meeting, the Blowing Rock Town Council directed staff and stakeholders to continue its investigation of possibly transforming the old Blowing Rock Fire Station into the permanent home of the Ensemble Stage.

The agenda item was initially slated for the Nov. 12 meeting before being deferred at the request of Blowing Rock Mayor J.B. Lawrence, according to meeting minutes. Lawrence’s wife Lynn is on the board of directors of the Ensemble Stage.

On Dec. 12, Town Manager Scott Fogleman sent out a memo to Lawrence and members of the Blowing Rock Town Council of a list of issues that would need to be documented; addressed in a full report; and then considered by the board before taking action on the matter. Those items are listed below:

  • The feasibility of the building to accommodate Ensemble Stage needs
  • Structural improvements needed, costs, and who will pay for them
  • What might the impact of this mean to the outstanding grant already applied for in the amount of $50,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission and Environmental Protection Agency approved for application by the council in October that includes using the building for year round farmers’ market location
  • Opportunity cost of using the building for this purpose versus the overall marketability of this building either for lease or sale (longer term perspective)

“In addition to working with the Ensemble Stage, we would welcome participation in this review by other interested parties such as the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce,” Fogleman stated in the memo.

This memo and the inclusion of this issue on the agenda for the Blowing Rock Town Council comes after Ensemble Stage artistic director Gary Smith drafted a letter to the town requesting that the old fire station become the new home of the production company.

“Unfortunately, due to scheduling logistics, auditorium condition, and patronage growth, that arrangement is no longer a viable option,” Smith wrote. “In order for Ensemble Stage to, not only contine to grow, but also to sustain itself as a performing arts entity, we are forced to look for a new, more exclusive home.”

Smith continued that the old fire station would allow Ensemble Stage to offer 30 weeks of entertainment and programming for the community and its visitors, while also providing a suitable venue option town and Blowing Rock Chamber events.

The production company also has plans to renovate the fire station at its own expense, Smith notes, into a 125-seat auditorium with a stage and theatrical lighting and sound, a lobby, restrooms, concession area and box office on the lower level, while the upper level would include a rehearsal room, “green room,” dressing rooms, tech booth and office.

“Ensemble Stage understands that it would be responsible for payment of all utilities, upkeep and other considerations,” Smith wrote.

Last month, Councilman Albert Yount noted that while the request was a “good idea” – it was just that, nothing more than a good idea at this time. Yount was particularly concerned about capitalization of the production company. He said he wouldn’t make up his mind until he heard more details on the entire matter.

Speaking on Thursday, Councilman Dan Phillips said he was very supportive of the Ensemble Stage and agrees that they need to find a permanent home.

“I think the town needs to do due diligence with them and make sure that place is going to work for them,” Phillips said. “I hope they are [able] to raise the money.”

 Phillips mentioned that he would have preferred Ensemble to look for a place on Main Street. He added that it was unlikely to happen though.

But as Phillips said, the old fire station is “just sitting down there not having a useful purpose.”

In October when the discussion of a farmers’ market being housed in the old firehouse, Councilman Jim Steele said the building had been deemed unsafe due to electrical problems. He said the garage doors needed to be replaced and bathrooms needed to be brought into compliance. 

The discussion centered around an application for a $50,000 grant to develop local food systems and the money would be used to renovate the old firehouse. According to meeting minutes, Steele said that “$50,000 would be a beginning, [though], it wouldn’t cover all the costs to upgrade the building.”

Smith couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon.

See meeting documents on the matter here