Generous gift launched Peace Center, community support keeps it strong

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CINDY HOSEA/Staff

The Peace Center for the Performing Arts, the South Main Street venue launched with a generous gift from Greenville's Peace family.


The Peace Center for the Performing Arts, the South Main Street venue launched with a generous gift from Greenville's Peace family, marked a milestone birthday in 2010.

The Broadway hit "Wicked" played to full houses for three weeks in January and February of the venue's 20th year.

But the Peace Center wouldn't be the fairy tale it is without some wand-waving by community supporters in the beginning.

The idea to build a performing arts center in Greenville germinated in 1985 and steadily grew through weekly discussions between Betty Peace Stall, David Freeman and Fred Walker.

TALK Art visited with Stall and Freeman recently, asking them to recall how the Peace Center became a reality.

It's a dream that Stall says began with the idea "build it, they'll come."

An idea whose time had come

Freeman, whom Stall describes as the "founding father" of the Peace Center, says he started with the hope of having a concert hall downtown. Eventually, and propitiously, it morphed into a performing arts center with two concert halls — the 2,100-seat main hall and the more intimate 400-seat Gunter Theatre.

For a long time, says the Peace family's lawyer, he felt "an urge to advance the appearance of Greenville." There wasn't much to compel you to come downtown, Freeman says. For example, the Greenville Symphony Orchestra played 30 minutes away on the Furman University campus. The fact that Freeman served on a long-range feasibility study for the GSO to build a downtown concert hall served as his catalyst to act.

When in 1985, the well-to-do Peace family "were suddenly quite wealthy," says Freeman, he saw his chance to propose that they underwrite the cost of a downtown concert hall.

The money came through the 1985 recapitalization of Multimedia Inc., whose largest shareholders were the Peace family.

Stall says the financial move earned her family members and their heirs millions of dollars.

The family agreed to shape the initial idea into brick and mortar with a $10 million gift to the Greenville community, Stall says. "The family's three branches announced their intention at the annual meeting of the Community Foundation," a public charity that assists donors who wish to help the community.

After local architect Kirk Craig completed the initial plans for a performing arts center, it became obvious the project would cost a lot more than $10 million.

"We had to go into a fundraising mode, as the eventual price tag came to $40 million," Stall says. By that time, civic and political leaders, as well as the community, began to line up behind the ambitious plan.

The ball gets a good roll

It took just a little more than four years before the doors opened to the public, in December 1990.

Stall says not everyone thought Greenville needed such a venue. "Greenville was the smallest metropolitan statistical area to want a complex of this size, and there were questions whether it could operate on its own."

To avoid such financial hardship, the forward-looking organizers mounted a second fundraiser, this one for an endowment.

The performing arts center has proven worthy of its organizers' trust.

In 2003, the venue won the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Award — the state's highest official award for the arts — in recognition of its leadership in presenting and promoting the arts. Its support extends to its resident companies, including the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, the S.C. Children's Theatre, two ballet companies and the S.C. Governor's School of the Arts and Humanities.

The venue also supports, through its outreach program POP!, arts education at area schools. The program brings thousands of students, teachers and parents to selected performances at the Peace Center and sends guest artists into schools to teach master classes.

In the current season, artists who have graced the concert hall stage include violinist Itzhak Perlman, guitarist Sharon Isbin, jazz/pop trumpeter Chris Botti, bluegrass hero Ricky Scaggs and rock greats the Doobie Brothers and the Steve Miller Band. There were "South Pacific," comedian Kathy Griffin and soul singer Gladys Knight. And there's more to come.

To this day, says Stall, every time she attends a performance at the beautiful venue she marvels at how her motto — "build it, they'll come" — blossomed into the Peace Center.

With careful planning of each season's fare, the Peace Center has operated in the black for each of the past 15 years, says the venue's president, Megan Riegel. Over the past five years, approximately 70 percent of giving has come from individuals, 26 percent from corporations/foundations and 4 percent from other sources.

Individual giving has grown approximately 40 percent in the past five years while corporate/foundation giving has stayed level or slightly decreased, she says.

Riegel calls the Peace Center "a gift to the community that will keep on giving for many generations to come."

While it was a family who provided the catalyst to build the venue and continues to this day its generous support, it is the support of the community that propels the Peace Center forward, Riegel says.

ABOUT THE PEACE CENTER

Address: 300 S. Main St.

Parking: The Peace Center is located in downtown Greenville. Street parking, as well as private lots are available to guests.

Box office: 864-467-3000

Web: www.peacecenter.org

Seating: The concert hall seats 2,100. The Gunter Theatre next door seats 400.

Lillia Callum-Penso