Fountain Square Watkins? 

The school’s long search may lead to MetroCenter’s empty cineplex

The school’s long search may lead to MetroCenter’s empty cineplex

Several months into one of the most public real estate searches in Nashville history, the Watkins College of Art & Design may have finally found a home.

Watkins is negotiating the purchase of the former Carmike 14 movie complex next to the retail development previously known as Fountain Square Mall. If the two parties are able to settle on a price, Watkins could hold classes there as early as next fall.

The MetroCenter location has its advantages: It’s large, available, has plenty of parking, and is easily accessible. But Watkins officials are the first to concede that the office park is not the perfect place for an arts college.

“We were hoping for an urban site that could become a part of the life of the community and be a catalyst for art and retail development, and the MetroCenter site doesn’t really fit that desire,” says Richard L. Fulton, the chairman of Watkins’ facilities committee and the CEO of Grubb & Ellis/Centennial Inc. But, he says, the 13.4-acre site owned by a Dallas-based property investor “is a great facility, and one we think we can afford and one we could move into immediately. And it would give us enough land for future expansion.”

Assuming Watkins’ search is over, it will come as a relief to school officials, who intend to launch a major capital campaign during the next year. “I don’t believe that the property search has been a big problem for morale, because we have a workable facility now at 100 Oaks,” says Watkins president Jim Brooks. His school, formerly located at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Church Street, was displaced by construction of the new downtown library more than three years ago. “But this has taken a lot of time and energy.”

Still, Watkins’ choice of Fountain Square, an empty husk of a failed suburban enterprise, will come as a disappointment to many people who have tried to lure the school to other areas of town. During the last few months, Watkins’ officials have considered more than a dozen places—from the train gulch just west of downtown to the Five Points area of East Nashville to Nolensville Road to a site adjacent to the General Hospital building. Meanwhile, plans to buy the campus of Free Will Baptist College on West End Avenue were foiled when Watkins was met with heavy opposition in the Richland neighborhood adjacent to the property. Beyond that, school officials concluded that the Free Will buildings would be too expensive to buy and renovate.

East Nashvillians promoted the idea of Five Points as a potential location for Watkins. A few weeks ago, several East Nashville residents, including school board member Patricia Crotwell and architect Hunter Gee, met with Watkins officials and discussed a possible relocation across the river. “We talked about the potential synergies between Watkins and the public schools, particularly Stratford,” says Jeff Ockerman, chairman of the urban design committee of a community group called Rediscover East.

Founded in 1882, Watkins historically has been a part-time and vocational school. It became a full college of art and design two years ago, and now offers four-year degree programs in fine arts, film, interior design, and graphic design. Enrollment was up 8 percent this year to 395 students.

Ockerman says the school would have been a good fit in East Nashville.

Watkins officials, who were given $5.4 million to leave the school’s downtown site, eventually contacted the Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., about using its building at 800 Main St. near Five Points. “The people at Bank of America were very nice,” Fulton says. “But they said that they needed the property and didn’t have any current intention of vacating it. And we couldn’t afford to move them out, buy it, and then retrofit it.”

After the East Nashville plans fell by the wayside, a representative from Mayor Bill Purcell’s office suggested Watkins contact the Nashville Civic Design Center. Members of that organization suggested a site next to General Hospital that Metro currently uses to repair cars.

For a time, it looked as though Watkins would turn Metro’s brick “car barns” into classrooms and soundstages. But the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA), which has long-term plans to develop the property into a residential development, discouraged Watkins from pursuing the site.

“Our timing didn’t seem to fit with what they needed,” says Jerry Nicely, MDHA executive director. “For one thing, we don’t know where we would put the car repair facility if we put Watkins there. We have also been trying to develop the entire 35-acre area. Splitting it up and selling part of it to Watkins might make that difficult.”

Purcell’s lack of direct involvement in the Watkins property search is in sharp contrast to the approach of former Mayor Phil Bredesen, who moved things at taxpayer expense. For example, Bredesen convinced the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to leave Music Row for a site next to the Gaylord Entertainment Center, and he talked Nashville Zoo officials into leaving a Cheatham County location for the Grassmere property on Nolensville Road.

At-large Metro Council member David Briley wishes Purcell had gotten more involved in Watkins’ search for a home, particularly given that it was Metro, under Bredesen, that displaced the school to begin with. “There has to be a middle ground between the idea of doing all sorts of projects that we may not be able to afford on the one hand, as Bredesen did, and pretty much staying out of it, which is what happened here.”

Briley, who lives in East Nashville, says he would have preferred either the Bank of America site or the land next to General Hospital. “Within the old city of Nashville, we have a few remaining residential neighborhoods without enough commercial and institutional tenants, and this would have been a great opportunity to really help one of those areas,” he says.

But Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips defends the mayor’s passivity in the Watkins property search. “There is a difference in style from this mayor to the previous administration,” he says. “But this mayor’s style is to encourage people to use things like the Civic Design Center and to talk about things that are possible in parts of town, not to take a map and a set of pins and say this will go here and this will go there.”

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