On Thursday at 10:30 a.m., hundreds of people, mostly students, packed into the Garner Performing Arts Center. Inside, a Boston theater company performed the educational play “Eureka.” The audience watched as a girl frustrated by math homework somehow summons Albert Einstein, and he in turn summons in a slew of historical mathematical minds as well as a few jokes to bring prime numbers, probability and geometry alive.
The next night, “When a Man Cries in the Dark” brought a play about relationships.
And so it goes at the GPAC, the towns’ performance venue with Samuel L. Jackson’s productivity and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s range. A diverse array of programming keeps the facility busy and full of residents – and it gives the town a selling point to boot.
“There is something here every weekend. It is rare that we don’t have an event,” said GPAC manager Debbie Dunn. “It is a wonderful venue for the citizens of Garner and it meets a lot of different needs.”
The biggest “gets” for the GPAC – which was extensively renovated in 2006 – is Broadway Voices. In the series of typically about three Broadway stars over the year, each stops into town for one night of a solo performance. But the headliners represent just a sliver of the action.
The Towne Players of Garner provides a local theater group that puts on productions on a regular basis; their next run will consist of six performances of “Ghost of a Chance” during two weekends in mid-to-late April.
Towne Players also runs a youth summer camp which puts on a production each year, which Towne Players creator Beth Honeycutt called her reason for starting the organization.
On top of those performances, musical acts and out-of-town production companies host events at GPAC, leaving an eclectic lineup from Motown to bluegrass to a one man performance honoring Jackie Robinson.
“We've just come off an eight-week stretch where we've had everything from Garner Showcase of Talent, blues, Broadway Voices, Masters of Soul,” Dunn said. “We do have very diverse programing here.”
The busy, diverse programming schedule and the renovated theater in an old high-school that hosts them matters even beyond the entertainment value.
Garner Economic Development Director Tony Beasley said it depends on the client how exactly he uses GPAC in his pitch, but he said he does use it all the time.
“Just having a historical performing arts center that’s active, I use it as part of my quality of life pitch of what we have in Garner,” Beasley said. “That gives some validation, where someone will say ‘Wow, you just had (Broadway star) James Gregory’ or something.”
UNC-Greensboro economics senior research fellow Andrew Brod, who researches economic development, echoed Beasley’s message. Beyond any economic activity wrought from people from outside Garner visiting the town and spending money, the scene offers something to people who may be considering a move to Garner. Where towns used to grow, for example, where water sources provided a needed resource, with modern utilities quality of life can be the big draw, he said.
“They’re demonstrating that your town has some sophistication to it, or would be a good place for a business to locate,” Brod said. “It makes sense for our towns to be fun, to have things to do so people like where they are.”
Brod said quality of life is why Raleigh “is lusting after the latest Google project” as well as better schools and roads, or an exciting downtown area.
“Say someone has a great idea for a start-up, and is trying to decide whether to stay in Garner or move to Charlotte or Wilmington,” Brod said. “If Garner is attractive in his mind, he’s more likely to keep his start-up in town.”
Brod noted that there is a point of diminishing returns and knowing the exact value of an entity is hardly easy to measure. Beasley agreed.
“It’s hard to judge sometimes. A lot of time (people he pitches) won’t give you immediate feedback,” Beasley said.
But those he takes to the facility typically come away impressed by the auditorium’s quality, he said. Dunn also credited the town asset as versatile, saying it can also host business conferences during the week. Town government has hosted meetings there, including the annual retreat this year after snow made getting to downtown Raleigh treacherous.
“So many communities our size don’t have that kind of venue,” Beasley said.