Funeral parlor. Church sanctuary. COVID-19 testing site. Election audit and government meeting place.
And, coming soon: courtroom.
Almost none of these uses were ever intended for the Brown County Music Center, but they’ve been the action since the pandemic shut down normal operations on March 12.
The 2,000-seat, county government-owned theater had been on track to have a stellar year, with sell-out crowds scheduled throughout the spring and summer to see Willie Nelson, LeeAnn Rimes, Melissa Etheridge and other stars.
The entire season of shows was either rescheduled or canceled, and concerts aren’t expected to return to the building until probably February, said Diana Biddle, a county commissioner who is also on the music center’s board.
Instead, this week, you can visit the music center three nights in a row to watch hours of county budget hearings, for free. And starting Sept. 9, the public is welcome to attend criminal jury trials at the center, no tickets required.
Did the steering committee that developed the music center anticipate that it would be used in this way?
“God, no,” Biddle said.
“I think that when it was built, we were talking about the fact that, we have, on occasion, had a very large funeral, like, at the high school, so, that part of it was kind of in the back of my head, that that was a possibility. … But, no, none of this other stuff was even considered.
“Everyone has been very accommodating in trying to come up with ways to reenvision the space for the time being,” she added.
The music center is becoming the default space for government gatherings that are likely to attract more than a dozen or so people.
Usually, those events would take place in the County Office Building’s Salmon Room. But under physical distancing guidelines, and after a recent reconfiguration of that room to add a reception area to screen all visitors, there isn’t space for very many members of the public, Biddle said.
The largest government-owned buildings in Brown County are the schools, and they are restricting entry to only students, staff and those who are “adding to the educational experience” during the pandemic.
Nashville Town Hall also has a meeting room, but it’s smaller than the county’s Salmon Room, and Town Hall is also still restricting entry.
The Brown County Inn and The Seasons hotel have meeting spaces, but The Seasons is undergoing some renovation work, and the BCI’s rooms aren’t big enough for events like budget hearings, which require a lot of elected officials to be present, Biddle said. The public library’s meeting rooms aren’t big enough for well-attended meetings in the era of six-foot separation, either.
“So, it’s really about the only option that we have in order to allow for appropriate social distancing and still have meetings,” she said about the music center.
“I don’t know, I guess I could pitch a circus tent somewhere and (say), ‘Bring a lawn chair,’ ” she added.
Other possible gatherings to happen at the music center later this year are a property tax sale in October; voting in November for Washington Township residents; Area Plan Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, solid waste board and health board meetings; and various regional trainings hosted by the health department.
If the county gets the funding it is seeking to continue offering COVID-19 testing, the health department could occupy part of the lobby for that as well as for vaccine clinics, Biddle said.
As many as three different groups could use the building at one time with the way it’s set up, she said.
It costs money each month just to have the music center sitting there. It had just opened on Aug. 24, 2019, and has a $12.5 million mortgage to pay off, plus utility bills.
Board members were able to negotiate interest-only payments with the bank holding the mortgage several months ago. Staffing was cut back to three people and all three took 50-% pay cuts. Unused products at the concession stand were sold back. Since concerts were not happening there, the center was able to drop a rider from its insurance coverage, cutting the bill by more than half, Biddle said.
Still, they have to keep essential utilities on just to take care of the building.
“If we skinny it down to as skinny as we can make it, it’s a little more than $8,000 a month, and that is simply to keep the air conditioning on a level that keeps the moisture out of the air and doesn’t allow for things to deteriorate with the humidity,” she said.
Also, anytime a group is using the center, someone has to be on site to act as building security, she said.
Because the music center is being used as a host site for various events that are being moved because of COVID, the center is eligible for several grants, Biddle said. She’s looking into CARES Act funding — up to $494,000 for COVID-related expenses across the county as a whole — as well as grants offered by the Indiana Destination Development Corp., the state health department, the Department of Justice, and possibly the RESTART Act if it passes.
With rentals and grant aid, “I think that it will get us very, very close” to covering expenses, she said.
Biddle didn’t know details about rental income or arrangements with non-governmental groups. BCMC Executive Director Christian Webb and board of finance member Mike Lafferty did not return a message seeking information by deadline.
From July 14 to Aug. 8, the Indiana State Department of Health and Brown County Health Department set up a COVID-19 testing site in the driveway in front of the theater.
The building hosted a funeral in mid-July — a use the building had served a couple times before the pandemic.
At the end of July, Encounter Life Ministries started holding church services there on Saturday nights after bouncing around from a few other, smaller buildings.
The music center hosted a group of about 20 people who were conducting an audit of Brown County’s election results on Aug. 7. It was set up on the stage, as county budget hearings will be this week.
Court trials are scheduled to start as early as Sept. 9. Judge Mary Wertz said she actually has three scheduled for that day right now, as some cases get postponed or plead out before they actually go to trial. She isn’t sure yet whose case will be the first to be tried in this space, but she knows it will be a criminal matter, not a civil one.
Since early March, Brown Circuit Court has seen many jury trial dates moved to later in the year, causing a backup in cases that need to be dealt with.
“There are some individuals that have had some criminal matters pending for quite some time that really should be tried, so, obviously, I’ve got to balance the need to protect the health and safety of the court participants with the need to conduct essential business of the court,” Wertz said.
Between early March and now, Wertz has been able to conduct some court hearings with attorneys over the phone and by audio-visual conferencing with the jail. But criminal jury trials have been a different matter.
“For a 12-person jury, we’ll call in as many as 50 people to be prospective jurors. Obviously, I can’t sit that many in the courtroom itself (and maintain appropriate spacing),” she said.
The 2,000-seat Brown County Music Center, though, has ample space.
She thinks one of the green rooms backstage, where performers normally relax and snack before and after their shows, could serve as the jury deliberation room.
She planned to send a letter within the next couple days to the next couple hundred people who’ll be eligible for jury service, “letting them know we’re planning to resume jury trials and the safety precautions we will be implementing and what to expect,” Wertz said.
“I’ve heard from other judges who have been conducting jury trials, and for the most part, people are willing to come in and do their civic duty, so I am optimistic we’ll get a good response,” she added.
At least one extra person will be needed to act as security and the COVID screener at the front door of the music center during trials, and possibly another inside the auditorium. They’ll also need to pay a technician to make sure the sound is working correctly, Wertz said, and might need to buy personal protective equipment for jurors. She plans to apply for a criminal justice institute grant of up to $33,000 to cover those costs and any others that arise.
As for the shift in atmosphere between holding court in the rather intimate, 1870s courthouse vs. the brand new, 30,000-square-foot music center, “it will certainly be different,” she said.
The court staff has had to be especially flexible this year. In February, “normal” at the courthouse was disrupted because of renovations happening to the historic courtroom, jury room and law library. That work had long needed to be done because of security concerns and accessibility problems related to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Then, the pandemic hit, requiring court calendar modifications; and on July 16, the courthouse was shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak among building staff. Wertz and a couple court reporters kept on working with the doors locked, though, trying to keep essential court processes moving. Not everyone was permitted to return to the building and go back to “new normal” until they had had two negative tests.
“So, yes, it’s been a busy, busy year for the court already,” Wertz said.
“I, like everyone else, think that 2020 can just go in the books.”
Biddle isn’t expecting county government to back to normal operations anytime soon.
“I am under the impression right now that the likelihood of us getting back to some semblance of normalcy is going to be after the first of the year,” she said, “because I can’t envision anything past the first of the year right now. I kind of have myself working on four months at a time because that’s all I can deal with. The what-ifs change daily, and I think that every officeholder, every elected official in Brown County is making the best decisions they can make with the information that they have, in the interest of everybody’s health and well-being.”