Carla Clark | For The Republic Tracy Souza, CEO & president of the Heritage Fund of Bartholomew County, speaks during the African American Foundation 10th anniversary celebration at the Commons, Columbus, Ind., Thursday, February15, 2024

Research and discussion about the creation of a Columbus performing arts center will continue Thursday when a local steering committee meets in the wake of a community survey assessing residents’ thoughts on the matter.

The steering committee consists of eight community leaders. Plus other local leaders linked to arts agencies and other groups have been invited to meetings, according to Tracy Souza. She’s president and chief executive officer of The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County that launched the recent survey by Theatre Projects, a globally recognized venue planning consultant.

An Eli Lilly grant paid for most of the cost of the questionnaire that 823 people completed in one month’s time.

“That’s a huge number,” Souza said, adding that she was very pleased.

Talk of a local performing arts center has been a common subject off and on since the 1990s, via leaders with the Columbus Area Arts Council and other entities. Extensive renovation of the Crump Theatre for as much as $12 million once surfaced in such discussions more than a decade ago.

The recent survey covers everything from respondents’ arts and entertainment patronage to how they feel about current local venues for everything from music to theater. Those range from 100-seat Helen Haddad Hall to the 1,000-seat Judson Erne Auditorium.

“Even though we have a very robust inventory of local entertainment spaces, one thing we discovered is that, not everyone knows all the existing venue options,” Souza said. “So that’s pretty helpful to know.”

She added that that issue is a complex one since even currently closed North Christian Church was successfully used in recent years for arts events ranging from opera to dance as a theater-in-the-round setting.

Current, existing venues “are not yet maxed out,” as Souza and the steering committee sees it. “It seems like there is opportunity to do a whole lot more with what we’ve already got.”

She also mentioned that this ongoing investigative process into a performing arts center has revealed one significant possible flaw in the city’s future arts programming: no one main person to act as a central resource for artist or event bookers to contact about what venues here might fit their performers’ needs. Having that resource raises a community’s entertainment profile, as Souza called it.

Souza said that, in other cities, that person functions as something of an air traffic controller for arts agents and booking agencies looking for performance outlets for their clients in a particular community.

Souza pointed out that creating that main resource arts position “just might step one for us.”

Survey results show one element strongly.

“There is an overwhelming desire among nearly everyone for more entertainment options locally,” Souza said. “And I would say that that’s no surprise. That already came through amid past projects such as Envision Columbus and other things.”

At least twice before in the past 20 years, the Heritage Fund has surveyed a portion of the community on what it thinks Bartholomew County needs. Souza said this most recent survey also shows that respondents “would simply attend more events” if a performing arts center is built — and still attend similar gatherings in Indianapolis and elsewhere.

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