Pantheon Education Center

Sun-Commercial photo by Jenny McNeece | The one-time Pantheon Business Theater has been renamed the Pantheon Education Center. It’s new executive director, Nichole Like, says an 11-member operating board is busy behind the scenes getting everything ready for when the shared workspace and small business incubator is finished this spring.

Big things are happening behind the scenes at the Pantheon Education Center.

And, yes, you read that right. The shared workspace and small business incubator has a new name.

Initially, local elected officials agreed the shared workspace would be called the Pantheon Business Theater. But Nichole Like, a former county council member and now the newly-named executive director of the Pantheon Education Center, said as the organization sought — and later successfully obtained — non-profit status, they opted to drop “business” from its name.

Marketing materials have appeared on the front windows of the old theater at 428 Main St., announcing the new moniker.

It's possible, though, the name could change again, Like said, as several have encouraged the operating board to consider putting “theater” back into the title to pay homage to the building's history.

“So we're doing some soul searching,” Like said. “We're in discussions, and we're not really sure yet what the (final) name will be.”

It's an important decision, Like said, as the operating board wants it to accurately reflect all that's going on inside.

And that, she said, has been a lot — especially of late.

“The operations board is meeting monthly,” she said. “We have committees that are working hard. Our relationships with Purdue (University) and Vincennes University are growing.

“It's all very exciting.”

Steve Miller, the founder of the now shelved non-profit INVin, is leading a committee aimed at programming and planning, Like said. They're looking closely at the type of fee and membership structure the facility will need as well as the types of programs to offer.

Tony Burkhart, owner of the Burkhart Insurance Agency and chairman of the operating board, is also leading the marketing and fundraising committee. So far, he's raised $200,000 in private, local donations over the next five years.

“And he's nowhere near done,” Like said. “We have a goal of raising $500,000 over the next five years, all private money.”

“So far, I've not been turned down by any business or sponsor I've contacted,” Burkhart said. “Most of them are the same ones who committed to (funding) three years ago. They're still around, they're still willing to participate.

“It's very positive,” he said of the reaction he receives when he visits with potential investors. “And I think a couple of things have made that very easy. People see the need and they see the progress that is taking place in our community.

“Whether it's Heath Klein's project, Kimmell Pointe, or what VU is doing with the French Village or what the Niehauses have done with Old Chicago (Pizza and Taproom) or just all the other new businesses that have popped up, there's a lot to be excited about right now.”

Crews with Wolfe Construction moved into the theater earlier this summer. The near $2.5 million renovation is being overseen by a separate 5-member board appointed by city and county-elected officials who are splitting the construction costs.

The scope of the work had to be scaled back some after bids came in too high, but the project still includes a complete transformation of the theater's first floor. There will be an open-concept shared workspace as well as three offices available for rent and new, larger men's and women's restrooms. The theater's main stage, too, is being redesigned as an event space.

An elevator will still be installed to allow access to the second and third floors so that they can be finished another time.

Like said they hope to be finished by springtime.

And just how the space will be used, Like said, is also becoming more clear.

The shared workspace will be open to anyone in the community seeking office space. For a monthly fee, users will use an app on their Smartphones to access the building around the clock. They can make reservations for conference rooms and even pay their fees using that same technology.

“You'll be able to go in, find a hot desk, one that is wired for high-speed internet, video conferencing,” she said. “We will have a conference room for members to reserve if they need to meet with clients.

“I've talked to so many people who say they can't wait for it to open,” she said. “You'll have no headaches of insurance costs, overhead, hiring a janitor. If you have an idea (for a business), we want to give you the tools to be successful.”

The Pantheon project, too, has established partnerships with Purdue, VU and even Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division in the hopes of bringing the testing and manufacture of the latest technology in engineering and agriculture right here to Knox County.

Yet exactly what that will look like in the real world, Like said, has been a difficult thing for most people to grasp.

“What happens is maybe these students on campus at Purdue, engineering students, maybe they come up with an idea,” she said. “The think, 'Maybe I can do something faster, cheaper if I develop this drone or software to collect data on crops out in the field.'

“So then they have this piece of technology but they need to know, 'Is there a market out there for this?'” Like said. “So let's bring it to Knox County. Let's test it here, figure out if it's real-world ready. And if it is, we need to build it.”

Those connections established with Purdue University and Crane through the PEC, she said, could lead to all of those improvements happening right here.

“We're not going to hit a home run every time,” she said, “but it will be good to be in the game.”

In the beginning, many in the community opposed the idea of using tax dollars to transform the theater into a shared workspace and small business incubator. Some still do. But Like said as she visits with people and explains the possibilities to them — in a tangible fashion — they usually come on board.

“I think perceptions are maybe changing,” she said. “I think once people see it, understand what it could bring to the community, the way it could potentially set us apart, they get it.”

Burkhart, too, said he has been encouraged by the way members of the operating board have gotten behind the project. Many of them, he said, have strong entrepreneurial spirits as well as philanthropists' hearts.

“They believe in giving back not just with their time but with their resources,” he said, “and that's where you have to start.

“If your board isn't willing to do the work and get behind it, how can you expect anyone else to.”

Sangtae Kim, head of Purdue's chemical engineering department, announced last October that the Pantheon Education Center would be the benefactor of the income — some $90,000 per year — from a $2 million endowment left to the university years ago.

Purdue is asking that, in return for its annual investment, city and county officials try to set up their own $2 million endowment to help to fund the Pantheon Business Theater's future endeavors long after Purdue's 5-year deal expires.

Purdue, which also has a seat on the operating board, has also offered help in finding "entrepreneurs in residents," i.e. professionals who can help to guide young entrepreneurs nourish their own business ideas, as well as a direct tie to its own small business incubator, The Foundry.

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