Owensboro pledges $3 million for bluegrass center

 The Owensboro City Commission unanimously endorsed a plan Tuesday to contribute $3 million toward the cost of turning the old State Office Building into a new International Bluegrass Music Center.

But the approval hinges on the International Bluegrass Museum raising the remaining $7 million needed for the project.

The formal approval has to come at a future commission meeting. But all five members enthusiastically endorsed the project at a work session Tuesday.

Commissioner Jeff Sanford said he attended the museum’s ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival on June 30.

“I was absolutely blown away,” he said.

“This could be one of the biggest things we do in this community,” Mayor Ron Payne said.

Commissioner David Johnson said the success of ROMP, which drew an estimated 20,000 fans from most of the 50 states plus Australia, Canada, China, Brazil, England and Japan, makes the decision to go forward with the bluegrass center easier.

“You can do this when you have an event that creates the excitement that ROMP does,” he said.

Terry Woodward, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, said the museum spent $186,000 on talent this year compared with $68,000 two years ago and $169,000 last year.

Ticket sales jumped from $21,000 in 2010 to $181,000 last year and $187,000 this year.

Woodward said the $187,000 for this year is not a complete figure. “It will probably go over $200,000,” he said.

Sponsorships and in-kind contributions soared from $103,850 in 2010 to $190,000 last year and $300,750 this year.

Campers at Yellow Creek Park for ROMP increased from 60 recreational vehicles in 2011 to 101 this year, while the number of tents jumped from 390 to 508.

Woodward said the festival probably lost a couple thousand fans from the area who would have attended with better weather. The county’s all time high temperature — 107 degrees — was tied on the first two days of ROMP.

“We decided last year that we wanted ROMP to have a national reputation,” Woodward told the commission. “And you have to invest money to make money.”

He said he hired an architect and an engineer to give him an estimate on turning the old State Office Building into a bluegrass music center. Their estimate was $9.6 million.

That’s about half of what consultants estimated in May 2011.

Woodward said he believes the new figure is accurate.

The new figures include a 1,000-seat “state of the art” indoor theater and an outdoor performance space that will seat 2,000-plus, he said.

“We just have a museum now,” Woodward said. “But so much more can be done.”

He said the museum wants to host annual banjo, mandolin and fiddle camps; have outdoor bluegrass shows during Friday After 5; add film festivals and instrument conventions; host blues, jazz, gospel and Americana concerts (roots and branches of bluegrass); and have a summer musical and Saturday night performances of a bluegrass opry with national talent.

Woodward said he believes Sirius radio and PBS would be interested in broadcasting the bluegrass opry.

The museum space would increase from 20,000 square feet now to 30,000 at the new center, he said.

There’s space on the first floor for a 4,500-square-foot bluegrass-themed restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating, Woodward said.

“We could have enough events to attract people from all over the world to Owensboro throughout the year,” he said.

He said people from 52 countries and 50 states visited the current bluegrass museum last year.

The bluegrass center, Woodward said, would have escalators as well as stairs.

“We’re not cutting any corners,” he said.

Woodward said he expects 50,000 visitors in 2014 (after the center opens in April), 75,000 in 2015 and 100,000 in 2016.

By 2016, he said, the center should have a $25 million economic impact on the city and state.

Last year, Woodward said, the museum operated at a $47,000 deficit.

“We lost a lot of money doing the Bill Monroe Centennial,” he said. “But we won’t do that again for another 100 years.”

In 2014, Woodward said, the bluegrass center is expected to lose $168,000. But that should decrease to $84,000 in 2015 and $40,000 in 2016 as it attracts more visitors.

ROMP and the center’s restaurant should help cover the part of the losses, he said, and the museum has a reserve fund to help cover the rest.

Woodward said the museum will launch its drive to raise the remaining $7 million next month.

He hopes to start construction in April.

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