Lawrenceville, Aurora Theatre break ground on $31M arts center

Lawrenceville officials and Aurora Theater leaders celebrated the groundbreaking of the Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center on Thursday. (Amanda C. Coyne/AJC)

Lawrenceville officials and Aurora Theater leaders celebrated the groundbreaking of the Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center on Thursday. (Amanda C. Coyne/AJC)

Nearly 15 years after Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre moved out of a converted hardware store and into a former church sanctuary, the organization held a groundbreaking ceremony for a $31 million expansion.

The theater’s existing space on E. Pike Street will remain, with the expansion being built on adjacent space that’s currently vacant. By the time the new Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center is complete in the fall of 2020, the facility will include a 500-seat theater with an orchestra pit, a convertible cabaret theater for smaller crowds and additional rehearsal space.

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The cabaret theater will be able to open onto an adjoining courtyard, maximizing its audience space. There will also be an art gallery and “art alley” that will connect the theater to a nearby parking deck. Abundant classroom space will be used for collaborative work with Georgia Gwinnett College’s cinema and media arts program.

The $31 million price tag will be paid up front by the city, with Aurora Theatre and Georgia Gwinnett College reimbursing half the cost over time, according to the plan approved by the city in January. Aurora Theatre is expected to raise these funds through capital campaigns. Georgia Gwinnett College’s future payments are subject to approval by the state Board of Regents.

The theater began in 1997 in the small converted hardware store in Duluth, co-founder Anthony Rodriguez told the AJC. It was looking for a larger space in 2004, and found the First United Methodist Church in Lawrenceville was moving from its downtown sanctuary. That building officially became its home in 2005.

Since then, Aurora Theatre has staged 131 productions — not counting events like comedy nights, children’s events and ghost tours — served more than 750,000 patrons and generated $40 million in economic impact, Rodriguez said. The theater has exceeded the goals Rodriguez and co-founder Ann-Carol Pence set when it moved to Lawrenceville. It’s surpassed 5,000 subscribers and serves more than 90,000 people annually, Rodriguez said at the Thursday groundbreaking.

Lawrenceville and Gwinnett County leaders hailed Aurora Theatre’s growth as part of the city’s downtown revitalization, which has been an ongoing priority for Mayor Judy Jordan Johnson and City Council. Downtown Lawrenceville has transformed in the time that Aurora Theatre has operated in the area, Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlotte Nash said.

Projects are also underway for a $200 million mixed-use development and a Hilton hotel, a far cry from what the city center looked like when Aurora moved into their current building, Pence told the AJC.

“When we came down here there was nothing. Now there’s a dozen restaurants to choose from, Slow Pour (Brewing) down the street. The bookstore, the coffee shop, that’s all new,” Pence said. “The only thing that was down here when we started was the local diner — which still sells really good biscuits with honey, don’t get me wrong. But us arts professionals are saying, ‘This is what a professional theater brings to your town.’”

The theater’s new space will allow it to provide more programs for Gwinnett County’s increasingly diverse population, Pence said. Aurora has already produced Spanish-language shows with English supertitles and other Hispanic cultural events, and the new stage space will make it possible for more programming from other cultures to be produced.

“Every time we do a show in another language with supertitles, another culture comes to us and asks ‘When are you going to do a Korean language show? When will you do a Chinese dance program? When will you do a Bollywood show?’ And we just don’t have the space right now,” Pence said. “But with these two new theaters and this courtyard, we will have four stages to showcase everything.”

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