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Plan could bring art, education, history to Centre Square

By Stephen Lega

Artistic and cultural opportunities could become a regular attraction at Centre Square if everything goes according to plan.

St. Catharine College officials are looking for ways to expand their outreach to Marion County, and they see Centre Square as the venue to make that happen.

Marion Countians could work toward college degrees and take continuing education courses - in a classroom setting - without needing to leave the county, according to a proposal presented to the Lebanon City Council earlier this month.

"The community has said to us that they want this in the community," said Roger Marcum, St. Catharine's executive vice-president.

This also ties in with St. Catharine's goal of increasing its presence in what Marcum called the tri-county area - Marion, Nelson and Washington counties - which is where most of St. Catharine's students are from.

Melissa Knight was a member of the Centre Square Committee and now serves on the Centre Square Foundation Board. She is an advocate for the proposal presented by St. Catharine.

"For a long time, people in this community have expressed an interest in seeing higher education here," she said.

In addition to the educational opportunities, St. Catharine could also open the doors to more fine arts as well.

Knight also serves on the St. Catharine Fine Arts Committee. While people may be familiar with the Mid-Kentucky Chorus, which has regularly performed in Lebanon, the agreement may lead to increased dramatic performances and visual arts displays in the community.

In some ways, this is already starting. The St. Catharine College Players (which includes faculty, staff and students) will be performing the comedy "Dearly Beloved" at 7 p.m. April 10 and 2 p.m. April 11 at Angelic Hall in the Centre Square Fine Arts Center.

This performance was scheduled before St. Catharine presented its plan to the city, but it's an example of the type of events that could be offered in the future.

Marcum also noted that St. Catharine is working to offer more four-year degree programs, including a fine arts degree and a program in rural leadership.

  The proposal

Under the proposal presented to the city council March 8, St. Catharine would have exclusive use of the basement, a first floor office and four classrooms on the top floor of the Centre Square Fine Arts Building (formerly Lebanon High School).

The proposal would also grant the college access to use Angelic Hall, but the college would need to reserve the hall like any other group.

The college would also like to provide a sign for the front of Centre Square, with the Centre Square Foundation Board having approval over the design and location of that sign.

The college has proposed to pay $25,000 annually to use the facility. St. Catharine would provide proof of liability insurance.

The original proposal was for the contract to run from April 1, 2010, through April 1, 2013.

Lebanon City Attorney Kandice Engle-Gray and attorneys for St. Catharine are working out the details of the contract, so no agreement has been presented to the city council for approval. Lebanon City Administrator John O. Thomas said that the Centre Square Foundation Board is scheduled to meet Thursday. If the board recommends the contract, it could be presented to the city council. The council's next regularly scheduled meeting is scheduled for April 12.

Informally, the city council reached a consensus during its March 8 meeting that they supported the concept of allowing St. Catharine to use the space for educational and artistic purposes.

Councilman Bill Pickerill voiced his support for the idea, but also expressed concerns about whether the proposed rental fee would cover the city's expenses.

Mayor Gary Crenshaw said that he shared Pickerill's concern, but he felt that this proposal was a good starting point to increase use of the facility. Councilman Kenny Marrett agreed that the proposal is a good starting point.

  Affect on the historical society

Before the St. Catharine proposal could be considered, the Marion County Historical Society had to reconsider its agreement with the City of Lebanon. For years, it had been understood that the historical society would be able to use the top floor of the Centre Square Fine Arts Building for a local history museum.

According to Mike Cecil, the president of the historical society, Chris Hamilton presented them with a new idea. Rather than having a full-fledged museum, the historical society could set up a variety of displays throughout Centre Square.

This would allow the artifacts that have been collected by members of the historical society to be displayed without the expenses that would be associated with operating a museum.

Cecil said the historical society members were supportive of the idea, and he added that he is glad to see that St. Catharine will have a presence in Marion County.

"I'm excited for St. Catharine. I'm excited for us, and I'm excited for the members who have had this dream for 20 years," he said.

Cecil added that the historical society is forming small groups to prepare the displays, and he invited anyone in the community to participate. Members are already working on displays related to agriculture, the Civil War, education and the railroad. Other possible displays could include bourbon and Catholicism.

"We want the people of Marion County to take ownership of this," he said.

Cecil added that the city attorney is working on a formal agreement with the historical society. He said that it might take a few weeks before the agreement is approved, but he doesn't anticipate any issues that would prevent that plan from happening.

  Improvements made this possible

Marcum arrived in Marion County in 1999 to become the local superintendent.

He recalled that the old Arista Theater was still behind the post office and that the theater's roof had collapsed. The old board of education building stood between the former Lebanon High School and the theater. Both the former junior high and high school were in disrepair. All the buildings had been neglected to some degree, Marcum said.

"That whole city block was very unattractive," he said.

Since then, both the Arista and the former board of education building have been torn down. The David R. Hourigan Government Center has been constructed on the site of the old board of education office and a new judicial center is under construction on the site of the old theater.

"It's a huge transformation," Marcum said.

The City of Lebanon purchased the junior and senior high property for $400,000 in 1998. After spending $1.4 million for renovation, the Centre Square Convention Center (the old junior high) opened in 2003.

Six years and another $3.4 million later, Lebanon High School reopened last July as the Centre Square Fine Arts Center.

Marcum witnessed much of that change first-hand as a member of the Centre Square Committee. He hopes that St. Catharine's programming can help continue the transformation of that area into a hub of activity to benefit the entire county.

"It just raises the quality of life for everybody," he said.