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Ellijay, GA
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New downtown playhouse on the horizon

A 5,300-square foot Dalton Street building purchased by local nonprofit Gilmer Arts is slated to become a new playhouse for the performing arts in the next two years. (Photo by Michael Andrews)

Plans for the layout of the George Link Jr. Gilmer Arts Playhouse — named for both the arts organization and the charitable trust that made the building purchase possible. (Contributed photo)
New downtown playhouse on the horizon for Gilmer Arts

by Michael Andrews

A Dalton Street building constructed in the 1940s that’s been a grocery store, a fitness center and various churches over the years will soon begin a new life as a performing arts venue.

Local nonprofit Gilmer Arts purchased the 5,300-square foot building in June to use as a playhouse that will feature live theater, music and other performance events.

“One of the things I realized in 2012, when I came back on the board, was it would be beneficial to the community if I could get some of our programs from the past revitalized — the B.E.S.T. Series, community theater, community chorus — while also getting our class schedule ramped back up,” said Gilmer Arts President John Rathbone.

The organization’s main office, art gallery, community theater and music room all function out of the same space at 207 Dalton Street, which can accommodate only so much at one time.

“With all these things happening, we were going to have problems with space. You would need to schedule a class or a live music night, but there would already be something else going on. It’s been like that pretty much since 2013,” said Rathbone.
A generous donation

The building purchase was made possible by a contribution from the George Link Jr. Charitable Trust, a philanthropic organization based in New Jersey.

Rathbone said Nora Link, the niece of the trust’s namesake, lives near Ellijay and wanted to do something to help the local arts organization. He never imagined the length to which her philanthropy would extend.

“She asked me in passing what our plans for the future were for the community. I mentioned that we were looking for a building for our performing arts events,” said Rathbone. “About two weeks later, she tells me, ‘I got you that money — for a building.’ I said “What!?’ Sure enough, in Dec. 2014, we received a check for $100,000.”

The George Link Jr. Gilmer Arts Playhouse will be named for both the Link charity and the local arts organization.

“From what I understand, he was a judge and (was once) an attorney. When he passed away, his family created the George Link Jr. Foundation and a charitable trust,” said Rathbone. “The trust’s mission is to make contributions to nonprofits around the country that are involved in socially impactful work, whether it’s religion, arts or education-related.”

A scholarship fund has also been set up in the name of the trust. Three scholarships will be awarded each year to graduating Gilmer seniors going to college for degrees in the performing, visual or literary arts.

Plans for a playhouse

An artist’s rendering of the playhouse floorplan shows a spacious, seated theater with moveable walls to allow for larger audiences, as well as dressing rooms, storage space and a lobby and concession area.

“There will be about 150 seats. We can have good live music events, regional performers, local performers, local theater, community events, meetings and classes. The (possibilities) are endless,” said Rathbone.

The long, brick-faced building has architectural features that make it a desirable location for a performance venue.

“It has very high ceilings and the floor is about three feet down from the parking lot level. There’s an upstairs (level) and a downstairs underneath for costume and prop storage. (In front), there will be a big gallery area for folks to gather in before shows, as well as concessions and a box office,” said Rathbone.

There’s also nearby parking in the courthouse/Dalton State lot.

“We want whatever we do to draw people downtown. If you’re going to have a 150-seat performance venue in downtown Ellijay, where are people going to park their cars? People don’t want to walk four or five blocks if they don’t have to,” said Rathbone.

Extensive renovation is planned for the building. Rathbone said improvements will be done as Gilmer Arts acquires the funds to make them happen.

“We’ll be doing some demolition in August. We’ll have to rip out the old wiring and plumbing and put in some new walls and ceilings, as well as a new roof,” said Rathbone. “The Gilmer Home Builders Association board has volunteered to step up and assist us with the demolition.”

Rathbone said Gilmer Arts plans to use the venue for their own events at least 80 nights out of the year. For another 80 or so dates, it will be available to rent for weddings and other social functions, he added. The nonprofit is shooting for a completion date of late next year or early 2017.

“Our goal for the beginning of fall is to have the demolition and the roof done. Those have to happen first. Hopefully, by that time, the architectural work will be finished and over the course of late fall and winter into spring we’ll be able to proceed with the renovations,” Rathbone said. “Most of the building may be done a year from now, but we may not be able to start the programs till 2017.”
Making it all happen

Gilmer Arts has started a capital campaign through which it will raise money to help transform the dilapidated structure into something new and beneficial for future generations.

“It may be a $500,000 to $600,000 project. We don't want it to be cheesy, we want it to be nice,” said Rathbone. “We’re very grateful to the George Link Jr. Charitable Trust for giving us the necessary funds to start. We’re a long way off, but we’re about 20 percent there and we own the building.”

Ellijay City Council member David Westmoreland said the venue is something that’s been needed in downtown Ellijay for a long time.

“Everybody on the council is definitely excited. It’s going to be a big deal and we’re certainly very supportive of it,” said Westmoreland.

The building, which neighbors Dalton State College’s Gilmer campus, was where local community service nonprofit Faith, Hope and Charity, Inc., got its start, Rathbone said. Many longtime residents will remember when it housed one of the town’s only grocery stores.

“It was a restaurant for a period of time in late ‘60s and, for most of my childhood, it was the C&K grocery store,” remembered Westmoreland.

Rathbone is confident its use as a playhouse will serve numerous purposes — not just for Gilmer Arts, but also for the future of downtown Ellijay.

“We met with the downtown merchants shortly after we finalized our plans and I think they’re amped and excited. Having a hundred people come downtown Friday and Saturday evening — they’ll want to eat and shop.” said Rathbone. “Property values should increase from it. Taxes to the city should increase from it and it will look way better driving up and down Dalton Street. There may also be some spinoff where people will be interested in buying additional properties downtown.” 
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