Several local residents, community leaders, professionals and elected officials seized a two-minute opportunity to voice their opinions on the development of the Pantheon Business Theater during an hour-long public hearing held Tuesday morning.
The county commissioners — on behalf of themselves, the city and the non-profit INVin — are applying for a $500,000 state historic preservation grant to help fix up the outside of the theater at 428 Main St., one they plan to transform into a shared workspace and small business incubator.
Part of the application process is to host a public hearing during which taxpayers could share their thoughts on the project at hand. And share they did as visitors filled the commissioner's room at the Knox County Courthouse, many of them spilling out into the hallway as well.
Mike Carney, chief executive officer of KCARC, kicked things off by expressing his “unequivocal support” for the Pantheon Business Theater. Historic preservation, he said, is “germane” to a community, especially Indiana's oldest city.
“So count me among those who support it,” he said.
And he wasn't alone as the vast majority of those collected shared Carney's opinion, many of them saying they saw the shared work space and incubator as an investment in their children and grandchildren.
“I think you'll see that, in the long run, it will benefit our children,” said Jim Zeigler, a member of INVin's board of directors. “To me, it doesn't make any difference, but for our grandchildren, it's time we all bundled together and did this for them.”
County councilman Harry Nolting, too, said he was excited about the Pantheon project. So much of the county's money, he said, goes to fixing “problems,” things like public defenders. So much, he said, “is swallowed up” that should be going to provide a future for coming generations. And the Pantheon Business Theater, he said, “is an unprecedented opportunity” to do that.”
For history lover Norbert Brown, the project means one of the city's greatest historic treasures would live on.
“Architecturally, this is one of the jewels of our community,” Brown said. “A lot of the buildings we cherish today, take Grouseland for instance, was scheduled to be torn down in the early 1900s. Fortunately, that didn't happen.
“This one has stood there since 1921, and it's worth saving.”
Eli McCormick, another of INVin's board members, said the project would “spark entrepreneurship” in Knox County, and Tim Smith, a member of the city's Redevelopment Commission and chief of the Vincennes Township Fire Department, called it “a good anchor.”
Rob McLin, CEO of Good Samaritan Hospital, said the co-working space would help to solve “one of the hospital's biggest challenges,” which is in recruiting physicians and their families.
“Having opportunities like this for the spouse, their children, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, really expands exponentially what we are able to offer them in this county,” he said.
Mark Gerkin with the AME Group, too, said the tech community would likely embrace the Pantheon Business Theater. As AME, in particular, looks to expand into surrounding communities, a shared work space would likely prove beneficial.
“I wish (the) small markets (we serve) had places like this as a low-cost alternative to working from home,” he said.
But not everyone who attended the public hearing was on board with the idea.
Ray McCormick, a Knox County farmer and conservationist who is running this fall for a seat on the county council, said his experience in buying and selling real estate has resulted in his opposition to the project. He called the city and county's combined investment in the project — they've agreed to split the projected $2.5 million renovation cost — purely “speculative” and “high risk.”
“These kinds of historic preservation projects, this kind of spending of taxpayer dollars, will not pay off,” he said. “It won't appraise for what you've spent on this facade grant.
“It's a poor investment.”
Lydia Duncan, Bicknell, said she, too, thought the project a poor use of taxpayer dollars.
“And I don't see how it will benefit northern Knox County, or southern Knox County for that matter,” she said. “I don't see any return on investment for those living outside Vincennes.”
And Micah Haynes, chairman of the local Libertarian Party, too, continued his challenge of the project, arguing against “the general use of taxpayer funds for the Pantheon.”
He went on to call it the “shuffling of public dollars to private use.”
But as the public hearing drew to a close — and the commissioners, the grant applicants, had their first chance to speak — Kellie Streeter said the project had been thoroughly researched and that they comfortable in moving forward with the financial investment, even though they haven't yet pin-pointed a source of revenue.
“We've looked, listened, visited,” she said of the last year and a half, “and this is where it has ended up. This is a partnership with the city, the county and Purdue University to invest in our historic community.
“And we've received a great amount of support financially.”
If successful, the state grant would go to pay for exterior improvements, things like tuck-pointing, new windows and doors, the repair of its terra-cotta details as well as the installation of a new marquee, one reminiscent of the original sign that lit up the theater in the 1940s.
Another $2 million would then be spent inside to transform the theater into a largely open-concept shared work space with rentable private offices and large meeting areas.
Through a proposed partnership with Purdue University, the shared work space would also function as a direct artery to the Foundry, Purdue's own entrepreneurial center, through which its programs and resources could flow.
An entrepreneur-in-residence at the Pantheon would oversee its day-to-day business and have access to the Foundry's network of alumni, mentors, legal counsel, programs and resources to help young entrepreneurs and connect job seekers with local businesses.
Several local businesses have also signed on as multi-year sponsors.