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Cornelius Hopes Planned Arts Center Will Transform Its Downtown

Lake Norman is a major destination for visitors north of Charlotte. Nearby downtown Cornelius isn't. But organizers say a planned $25 million regional arts center will change that — if they can raise the last $9 million this year.

The arts center site is next door to the Cornelius Police Department, where there's currently a couple of warehouses and an old building that once housed the town's cotton gin.

Justin Dionne is executive director of Cain Center for the Arts in Cornelius.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Justin Dionne is executive director of Cain Center for the Arts in Cornelius.

Executive Director Justin Dionne described the plans while walking the site last week.

“This will be a wall with big glass windows, and a visual arts classroom. And up above it, on the second floor, will be the dance studio,” he said.

Dionne leads the 3-year-old nonprofit that's leading the project in partnership with the town of Cornelius. 

Plans call for an art gallery, classrooms and studios, an outdoor amphitheater and a 400-seat theater that would be one of the biggest auditoriums in the Lake Norman area. For comparison, Davidson College's theater seats about 600. It would be big enough to host Charlotte music and dance groups as well as touring musicians and shows. 

Altogether, Dionne said, they've quietly raised nearly $16 million toward the $25 million goal. Now, Dionne is making his pitch to residents, arts supporters and businesses.   

“This is the year for us to accomplish this," he said. "We really want to raise the remainder of these funds in 2020. So starting now in March, we now have aggressively moved forward in more of our public phase."

Public And Private Funds

The planned Cain Center for the Arts is named for Bill and Ericka Cain, local business owners who put up $5 million two years ago. Another big chunk of money comes from $4 million in bond funds that voters approved in 2013. 

The town also bought the 1.9-acre site for $1.5 million in 2017. 

Woody Washam
Cornelius Mayor Woody Washam

Cornelius leaders and arts supporters have talked about an arts center for a couple of decades, now. The idea has always been to pump some life into downtown Cornelius — once a mill village in the midst of farm fields. Mayor and arts center board member Woody Washam said it's already working. 

“The actual announcement of this center a couple of years ago has given us a fantastic economic boost already," Washam said. "And I can't imagine what that could be like once the center is under construction and moving forward.”

Washam said the center hopes to draw an audience from a 25-mile radius, which touches not only north Mecklenburg, but parts of Lincoln, Iredell and Cabarrus counties. 

Downtown Coming To Life

If you haven't been to Cornelius in a while, that may sound strange. It's only in the past six years or so that things have picked up, says downtown promoter and business owner Case Warnemunde.

“There was nothing going on," Warnemunde said. "There was essentially boarded up buildings.  [The arts scene was a] desolate wasteland, so to speak.”  

Warnemunde founded an arts and events group called Bella Love and started promoting downtown as "Old Town Cornelius." As the town's population, including the nearby Antiquity neighborhood, has grown, it's become home to arts festivals, history walks, food truck rallies and other community events — many organized by Warnemunde.

Case Warnemunde is a Cornelius business owner and arts promoter.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Case Warnemunde is a Cornelius business owner and arts promoter.

He also owns a cafe and bar called Old Town Public House in an old storefront and runs two events spaces in the nearby Oak Street Mill. He thinks the arts center will only help.  

“The groundswell grassroots arts movement that's kind of been developing here for a while, leading up to the Cain Center for the Arts … what that's going to spawn in terms of other growth, other restaurants, more pubs, nightlife, bigger festivals, more resources to the community, it's incredible,” Warnemunde said.

Warnemunde and Dionne both said they’re in negotiations about how to cooperate to help the arts center — and downtown — keep growing. 

It all depends on raising that last $9 million, Dionne said. 

“Now it's full bore ahead," he said. "And we want everyone on the train, we want it … because this is for the community, you know, and you don't want this to just be built by just a certain portion of the community. We want everyone involved.” 

Still, $9 million is a lot of money left to raise. Some of it will come through smaller donations, like a matching gift campaign supported by Cornelius-based Aquesta Bank.

But Dionne said they're also counting on more big donations, such as $5 million to name the theater and $1 million each to name two lobbies and the stage. 

Dionne said he hopes to break ground on the new arts center a year from now, and it could open as soon as late 2022. 

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.