25 years ago, Peace Center helped revive downtown
By Cindy Landrum
Arts facility looks to the next quarter century
Greenville’s downtown was dying.
Without a $10 million pledge from three branches of the Peace family – one of Greenville’s most prominent – the idea to build a performing arts center beside the Reedy River likely would have died long before it ever got started.
That was more than 25 years ago, and now downtown would be difficult to imagine without it. Since the Peace Center first opened its doors for a Founder’s Gala on Nov. 19, 1990, and 11 days later for a Grand Opening Gala and weekend of public performances, the facility helped revive a downtown that has become a national example of downtown renewal.
A $23 million campaign that coincided with the Peace Center’s 20th anniversary allowed the Peace Center Concert Hall lobby to double in size, added a 4,000-square-foot patron lounge and developed an education studio, multipurpose loft, an outdoor amphitheater, public plaza and park along the Reedy.
Now in the Peace Center’s silver anniversary year, President and CEO Megan Riegel is looking forward to the next 25 years.
“For me, it’s all about sustainability. We must be able to sustain this wonderful place, and that takes money,” she said. “We’ve got something special. Now, we need to make sure that 25 years into the future and 25 years after that, we’re still good.”
Studies have identified more than $20 million in projects that are needed at the Peace Center. None are the big, eye-catching additions and renovations as were financed through the 2009 campaign; instead, they are maintenance and upfit projects such as replacing the concert hall’s 2,100 seats, upgrades to make the building more energy-efficient, acoustic curtains, dimmers and sound system infrastructure.
Riegel estimates the seat replacements will cost $1.5 million to $2 million. And no, aisles won’t be installed, she said, because doing so would eliminate too many seats. When “The Lion King” was in Greenville, the show required aisles for the animal walk, requiring roughly 200 seats to be temporarily removed. The Peace Center can’t afford to lose those seats permanently, Riegel said.
“Aisles take up inventory. Fewer seats means the bottom line changes,” she said. “I’d rather people be frustrated over not having rows than frustrated by not being able to get seats or not getting the acts here.”
During fiscal year 2016, Riegel said the Peace Center would kick off a legacy-giving program to help increase the facility’s endowment.
“We’re hoping that as people are doing their wills and planned giving, they’ll think of the Peace Center,” Riegel said. “We want to find the believers who have thoroughly enjoyed their experiences at the Peace Center. We want to find folks with the means and the desire to make sure the Peace Center thrives for many generations to come.”
The Peace Center’s endowment and reserves stand at about $27 million. But with a $19 million budget this past year and the rule of thumb that says performing arts facilities its size should have an endowment of three times its annual operating budget, the endowment is less than half of what it should be, Riegel said.
This year, the Peace Center will put $1.1 million of its income back into the facility, and will raise money for projects through naming rights and such as it can, she said.
One of the challenges this project list creates is the downtime required in the theaters and concert hall to get them done, Riegel said.
“It was easier to do the 20th anniversary projects because in reality, we weren’t in the theaters to do them,” she said. “With these projects, it will take very deliberate planning and some crafted downtime.”
There’s not as much downtime as there used to be. In the Peace Center’s first season, 45 events were held. Attendance was 75,000. In the 2014-15 season, 318 ticketed events were held and 287,100 people attended.
“When the Peace Center opened, the venue ran from mid-September through May. It was basically shut down in the summer,” she said. “But we’ve got overhead year-round, so we program year-round. The level of activity has increased exponentially.”
The Peace Center thru the years
1978 – The Metropolitan Arts Council proposes the idea of building a performing arts center in Greenville
1985 – Mayor Bill Workman puts a task force together to determine the cost of building a center. Attorney David Freeman proposes a public-private fundraising partnership.
1986 – Three branches of the Peace family donate $10 million
Sept. 1988 – Groundbreaking held
1989 – Dorothy Hipp Gunter donates $3 million for a 400-seat theater
Nov. 19, 1990 – Peace Center opens its doors for first time for Founder’s Gala
Nov. 30, 1990 – Grand Opening gala is held, followed by weekend of public performances
July 1997 – Megan Riegel appointed president and CEO
2003 – Peace Center receives the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award
2009 – $21.5 million capital campaign launched to renovate and expand its lobbies and campus
May 2011 – Groundbreaking held for renovation
Fall, 2012 – Construction complete
Sept. 12, 2012 – The new TD Stage opens with a performance by Vince Gill
Nov. 19, 2015 – 25th anniversary