*** Published: July 18, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***
BRISTOL, Va. – If a $4.4 million federal loan is approved, work on a cultural heritage center could begin within six months, organizers said Friday.
The Birthplace of Country Music Alliance is seeking the loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's program for rural development for community facilities. On Friday, the alliance conducted a hearing to get public input on plans to establish a $10.5 million center in the vacant former Goodpasture Motors building in downtown Bristol.
The four who attended the 20-minute hearing primarily asked questions and expressed support.
"A lot of dominoes have to fall into place, but with finishing the construction documents, hearing about the funding, bidding the work out – it's very feasible that within the next five to six months we could be going great guns," said Kevin Triplett, chairman of the alliance's fundraising effort.
If all goes well, Triplett said, work could be completed and the facility opened by August 2011.
"That is still our timeline. That timeline is a lot tighter than it was, but it would still get us open by August 2011," Triplett said.
The request for public money was expected to come later in the process – because public funding often carries stipulations or requires matching money, Triplett said. But efforts to raise money in the private sector stalled last year in the wake of the national economic slowdown.
BCMA officials hope the federal funds – and other public money they are currently seeking – will prompt local donors to step forward.
The loan amount represents about half of the expected cost to renovate the two-story brick building and create the exhibits that would make it a world-class center, alliance Executive Director Bill Hartley said.
"About 80 percent of the money from USDA would go toward the physical renovation of the building," Hartley said. "That includes the exterior restoration, interior walls, partitions, electrical and HVAC systems, fire suppression, installing an elevator and lighting – all the things to allow us to occupy the building."
Some money would be used for exhibit materials, including audio-visual components and graphics. A portion also would go toward finalizing the remaining architectural and design fees, Hartley said.
Alliance officials hope to learn the fate of their request within three months.
During the hearing, alliance officials reviewed details of a study that forecast the center would attract 75,000 annual visitors and have a five-year economic impact of $43 million.
"We need it," said Steve Willinger, chairman of the local chapter of SCORE [Service Corps of Retired Executives]. "It's huge. It is so important."
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