There were more observers than usual a couple of weeks ago at the Lawrenceville City Council meeting. An overflow crowd, most dressed in red, had shown up to support a vote to move plans for a new performing arts center forward.
Just over two decades ago, the Aurora Theater Company was formed in an empty hardware store. About a decade later, it occupied a former church on the town square and now hosts 80,000 visitors per year with 5,000 season ticket holders.
The performing arts center will be adjacent to the Aurora, and part of its growth plan. In turn, the Aurora and its community of professional artists will continue to be part of the revitalization plan of downtown Lawrenceville, which has already attracted a mix of shops, restaurants and pubs to a now vibrant town square.
Lawrenceville is the seat of government for Gwinnett County, Georgia’s second largest county by population. It once defined suburban Atlanta, but with more residents than five U.S. states, it has an established an identity of its own. It’s flagship city is choosing to anchor it’s downtown with additional space to grow and foster a professional community of professional creative artists.
“Professional” is the key word here. With all respect to community theaters across the state, the Aurora’s mission is bold. They are dedicated to employing – and paying – performers who have chosen this as a career. The expansion is also timely, as the state is seeking to further anchor Georgia’s entertainment business as one that relies on Georgians who live here.
Georgia’s film industry has had great success in developing local crews for the technical side of the camera. The focus now is to ensure that the talent that appears on camera, as well as those who write, direct and compose, have pathways to join the profession as Georgians.
To that end, Speaker of the House David Ralston last week unveiled a House “working group” on Creative Arts and Entertainment. The group, authorized for the entirety of the 2019-2020 legislative term, will work with state agencies and industry stakeholders to increase investment in film, television, music and video game production here in Georgia.
A news release announcing the study committee claims 200,000 Georgians are employed currently in these industries, generating $60 billion of annual economic activity. The goal is to leverage the assets we currently have while continuing to anchor the industries here with both infrastructure and home grown talent.
The group chaired by Rep. Matt Dollar of Marietta, is bipartisan.
Timing and purpose here deserve some discussion, as there are few coincidences in politics. With new statewide elections behind us, some are pushing for new consideration of Religious Freedom legislation. The speaker has been among those warning of unintended consequences of passing a bill that some argue isn’t needed in light of existing First Amendment and Civil Rights Act religious protections. Economic consequences are usually the first discussed, if not outright threatened.
And so, at a time when some wish to renew this debate, there is a group whose purpose is to amplify and strengthen the economic impact of the creative arts community. It harkens back to the state’s history.
During the struggle for civil rights, when much of the country and especially the South was stuck between black and white, Atlanta focused on green. Corporate leaders growing a booming economy helped navigate a difficult and divisive time.
Arts and artists have a great ability to bring people together. To be honest, we haven’t seen a lot of this spirit coming from Hollywood award shows lately. Here in Georgia, perhaps this working group can get all sides focused on the opportunities ahead, and remind us that we’re a stronger, more vibrant, and better people when we unite despite our differences.