How the Von Braun Center’s biggest renovation yet will happen

single-meta-cal February 7, 2018

Fifteen months from now, somebody will plug in a guitar and step up to a microphone where a parking lot once stood and strum the first chords to a new era of Huntsville entertainment. A crowd will filter down from a moonlit rooftop bar, gather in a great cluster in a state-of-the-art music hall and celebrate the moment.

The Von Braun Center is embarking on the most ambitious construction project of its 43-year history, a $44 million plan that won’t reach into the pockets of local taxpayers. Designs have been created and bids have gone out for construction, with groundbreaking expected in April.

First to be completed will be a music hall at the corner of Monroe Street and Clinton Avenue. That will be followed by a 35,000-square foot ballroom adjacent to the North Hall. The plan also calls for a new kitchen, better resources for conferences and upgrades to the existing facilities.

It’s a very meaningful facility and we want to continue that legacy. It serves virtually everyone in the community.”

The reason is simple:

“Supply and demand,” says Steve Maples, executive director at the VBC. “We have a lot more folks trying to rent space than we have available. We were turning away so much business. Everything is full and everything is getting old, so we need to upgrade.

“The projection was, if we did nothing, we’d decline. We’d go backwards,” Maples said.

The music hall is the “extra” in this plan, like ordering heated seats in your new car. It was prompted by a desire to do something more iconic for that “gateway” corner into downtown. But the VBC itself is paying $7 million of the $9 million price tag over the next 20 years from projected revenues from the facility. The additional costs are budgeted from available lodging taxes paid by visitors to the city.

WATCH: Music Hall coming to Huntsville’s Von Braun Center

The new multi-purpose ballroom was recommended by the consulting group CS&L International as a more efficient option than a drastic overhaul of the current facility. The $35 million cost will be covered over the next 20 years by the recently enacted increase in lodging taxes and surcharges. The lodging tax rate is comparable to or less than all nearby markets, Maples says.

As Judy Ryals, executive director of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau wrote last fall in a City Blog story, travel and tourism had a $1.2 billion economic impact on the area in 2016. So “the funding mechanism for the expansion and renovation is also a win for locals. An increase in the lodging tax and surcharge … combined with the increased revenue from new (and larger) convention groups, will ultimately generate above and beyond the necessary revenue.”

Masters of Design

Just across the way from the Von Braun Center, Matheny Goldmon Architects sprawls in a second-floor office above the thump-thump-thump from the grueling fitness center below. The proximity to the VBC is perfect. Matheny Goldmon has handled some 30 projects there, including renovations to the Mark C. Smith Performance Hall and the Propst Arena.

“This is probably one of the more challenging projects that we’ve undertaken and there are many, many reasons why,” says company president Paul Matheny. “We have a very significant site in downtown Huntsville. It’s a very meaningful facility and we want to continue that legacy. It serves virtually everyone in the community.”

It’s a challenge of efficiency, “to make all the changes and additions and improvements while still maintaining use of the facilities,” Matheny says. “We can’t ask for the VBC to close for business while we do housekeeping.”

It’s a challenge of aesthetics, “to make sure we’re embracing, really catching a vision that’s consistent with some of the other work that’s going on over the area and really establish it as a primary entry into downtown Huntsville,” Matheny says.

Project snapshot

Here’s what the Von Braun Center project will include:

— A $9 million music hall with a 1,200-person capacity. Primarily standing-room attendance, with a balcony for VIP seating, it will be inspired by such sites as Marathon Music Works in Nashville. It will be a “plug-and-play” venue, with permanent stage, lighting and sound systems for the artists’ use.

— A rooftop bar and restaurant that will be open seven days a week.

— New offices for the Broadway Theater League and Huntsville Symphony, whose current offices will be displaced by the music hall construction.

— A 35,000-square foot ballroom that can be for convention space and other activities, with an array of breakout rooms for smaller meetings.

— A west-facing façade on the ballroom that provides a more attractive “welcome” to the complex and which could connect to the planned enhancements of Pinhook Creek.

— A 300-space subterranean parking garage under the ballroom, connected to current lot under South Hall.

— A new kitchen to replace the one built in 1980. VBC food services is a $5-$6 million annual business.

— Some $3 million in North Hall renovations and upgrades.

— A long pedestrian corridor to stretch through the “spine” of the complex, connecting Clinton to the Embassy Suites.

As Maples shares the plans, he is reminded of the last major renovations, the facelift to the VBC’s arena.

“People walk into that building,” he says, “and I hear it all the time. I hear a ‘Wow!”

The “wow!” factor is going to be echoed now, even more loudly, all across the VBC campus.