Interest growing over arts center for downtown Zebulon

amoody@newsobserver.comMay 7, 2013 

— A local real estate agent and the chair of a Zebulon interest group are seeking the guidance of the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County in hopes of establishing an arts center in downtown Zebulon.

An arts center, they say, would provide a number of unique opportunities and services that currently don’t exist in town. They also say it could be the solution for a downtown riddled with vacant buildings.

“We have 15 vacancies in a two block area facing Arendell Avenue in downtown, and we’re very concerned about how to get the downtown moving again,” said Ramona Davis, the chair of the Zebulon Beautification Committee. “We see (an arts center) as a way to bring more people downtown, and if we bring more people downtown we feel like the vacancies will start to fill up.”

Davis’ committee has had a hand in several improvement projects in downtown, but it was Zebulon real estate agent Dallas Pearce who approached Davis with the idea that an arts center might bring new life to the heart of town.

Pearce worked with the UAC on previous efforts to locate an arts center in Wendell and said he learned much about the council’s initiative through that process. Since then, he said he couldn’t help but notice the impact arts centers have had on other local towns that have successfully rejuvenated their downtown districts.

“I started noticing when I went to towns like Wake Forest, Fuquay(-Varina), Apex and Clayton that every one of them had the common denominator that they successfully mixed commerce with the arts,” he said. “All humans have to have commerce, but the other part of being human is we have an emotional side of us that also has to be scratched, and that’s where the arts come in. When you can scratch a guy’s heart and his pocket book, you’ve got him hooked.”

Pearce added centers for art offer something for everyone. Schools can take field trips and students can discover gifts and talents they otherwise might not find. Adults can enjoy art classes and programs, and the arts attract young adults, according to Pearce.

“The foot traffic downtown would be tremendously increased, and along with that comes enthusiasm with other businesses that want to be around that,” he said.

Finding footing

Who would fund an arts center and where it would be located remain uncertain at this point.

Pearce said it is possible the UAC could obtain grant funding to help support the project. He said it also may depend on private donations or monthly sponsorships by local businesses.

Eleanor Oakley, the president and CEO of the United Arts Council, declined to go into specifics on her organization’s potential involvement in an arts center in Zebulon because the issue hasn’t gone before the UAC board of directors, but she did say her group is interested in increasing the presence of arts in eastern Wake County.

“We’ve been trying different things and having different discussions about different ideas, hoping something would engage the enthusiasm of those who live in the three municipalities in eastern Wake,” Oakley said. “We’re hoping someone in eastern Wake would open an art center that we would be involved with.”

Oakley also made clear the Zebulon community – not the UAC – would have the lead role in any arts center in Zebulon.

“It’s not a matter of us directly opening an arts center in eastern Wake,” she said. “We’re much more interested in what the citizens would be willing to work on.”

Visions of a venue

Pearce and Davis met with Oakley and fellow UAC representative Ginny Zehr Thursday and gave them a tour of three properties they recommended as potential sites for any future arts center. Stops included two former town office buildings – the old police station on Vance Street and the former Zebulon Town Hall on the corner of Vance and Arendell Avenue. They also visited the former site of Zebulon Drug, a property owned by Tad and Lou Anne Adams located on the corner of Arendell and Sycamore Street.

The notion of an arts center sparked the interest of Lou Anne Adams, whose downtown property has been vacant since Zebulon Drug moved to a new Gannon Avenue location in January.

“I love art and I love food, and I think it would be great if I could rent my building and we could have a little cafe with art on the wall and a gallery,” Adams said. “That’s really what my vision is for that space. We’ve got tons of stuff in the store they would not have to spend the money on, like fixtures, desks and partitions for an art studio.

“Personally, I’d rather give something to someone who can use it than have someone come in here and offer me a little money for it.”

Davis said the old town hall space would be a good home for an arts center, but she has doubts the town would allow the property to be leased or used for free. Town leaders have turned down similar requests by other groups on grounds they promised taxpayers they would sell the former office spaces and use the proceeds toward the balance of the loan on the Zebulon Municipal Complex.

“We feel like it’s in the better interest of the taxpayer to bring the arts center downtown and try to revive downtown than to let the building sit there empty,” Davis said.

Moody: 919-829-4806

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