LATTA, S.C. — Dillon County School District Three opened the doors of the Ellis Performing Arts Center last week, culminating a 40-year process.
In the early 1970s, the Latta High School auditorium caught fire. Since then the district prioritized money for other projects like building new schools. The long-awaited project probably would not have ever come to fruition if it weren’t for a generous $800,000 donation from Latta schools alumnae Fred and Bonnie Ard Ellis.
Until recently fine arts programs performed in what district Superintendent Dr. John Kirby calls a “gymtorium,” a gym and auditorium combined. “It had no air conditioning and wasn’t conducive for children performing or the audience to see,” Kirby said.
Kirby said he seriously began thinking about how to build a new facility, and then six years ago, the nonprofit Latta Schools Education Foundation was formed with a primary goal to see that a new performing arts center would be built.
“We had to find a way to do it without taxpayers’ money. That’s when we thought about asking for donations,” Kirby said.
To get the ball rolling the foundation needed to secure a large donor to jump start the process. In talks about possible donors, the Ellis family kept coming up in conversations.
Fred and Bonnie have a history in Latta schools. Fred is a graduate and had been an accompanist for the school’s chorus. Bonnie, a graduate and former teacher in the district, had family that taught in the district. The two of them created a four-year scholarship years ago for students. They had gone off to make a life many years ago but still had a house in Latta, still visiting for weeks at a time.
“Both have a real drive to come back home and help the community,” Kirby said. “Their names just kept coming up. When we approached them about donating, they were really excited and it was exactly what we were looking for.”
Fred said it’s no mystery that funds for arts programs are severely lacking.
“Latta as a town has a lot of good people in it. They’ve always been nice and helped me. It feels good to be able to do something to help our town,” he said.
Originally the plan was to construct a building in the empty lot next to the district office, but with a $6 million price tag, the district soon realized it wasn’t possible. The district also had to put almost $1 million into the old gymtorium for upkeep. Kirby said he had seen other gym renovation projects in Summerton and Manning and thought it might be a good alternative.
Renovating the gymtorium to be a performing arts center would only cost about $2.5 million. In forming the Latta Schools Education Foundation, Kirby said the school district deeded buildings, including the gymtorium, and properties not in use to the foundation, creating assets totaling $4.5 million.
Scholarships previously under the district also were transferred to the foundation to dole out. The moves allowed the foundation to secure a loan with a bank, putting shovels in the ground to start the project in June 2011.
With construction under way, the foundation solicited donations from a core of about 100 donors, including the Ellis family, local business owners and churches. Kirby said almost every church in town pledged to donate $2,500 and in return the churches would be allowed to use the facility for weddings, funerals and other events. So far, the project is more than half paid for by donations. Actual construction took almost exactly two years to complete. The foundation has 10 years to pay back the rest to the bank. Kirby said he hopes to get donations from other alumni to help raise money for the rest.
Last Thursday the whole town showed up for a black tie optional affair starting at Abingdon Manor followed by an inaugural performance by the Latta Community Singers in the new Ellis Performing Arts Center. Fred Ellis played the Latta High School alma mater song on the piano to resounding cheers and applause.
The 20,000-square-foot center has a 1950s-1960s motif with a 1970s casino carpet style, 1940s phone booth, artwork on display, a full-sized performance stage, state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment with dressing and classrooms. It seats 458 people. The vision for the center is to attract off-Broadway shows and showcase community talent. It will also offer students the opportunity to learn the technical side of performances using the lighting and sound technology.
“All the performances will include them. We’re going to let them run everything including ticket sales,” Kirby said.
Larry Legette, former school board member and operations director for the district, said he never thought he’d see a new performing arts center in his lifetime.
“We’re a small, close community and realize the benefits that this can give,” he said.