The Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex: the East Austin cultural hub aims to renovate its old cinema into a live performance space.
When the new millennium came to Austin it brought with it the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex – a fun time straight out of a kid’s dream with a bowling alley, skating rink, arcade, and movie theater. But now the theater collects dust rather than movie stubs.
However, now the facility enters a new era as one of the first sites to benefit from the city of Austin’s Cultural Trust, and general manager Kim Wright believes that investment can breathe new life into the space. She said said that the complex tries to promote a “feel good” environment to their new patrons, new and old, from five to over fifty. “There was also a social mission, and part of that was engaging people in the community, giving them a place to come in, enjoy recreation.”
The plans involve renovating that cinema space (which closed in the early 2010s due to the high cost of shifting to digital projection) as well as adding a performance space that will be open to the community.
Established in 2018 and run by the Austin Economic Development Corporation (a public real estate developer), the Cultural Trust aims to create affordable art spaces in Austin and preserve buildings for creative use. Anne Haynes, AEDC chief transaction officer, said, “We’re losing too many artists, we’re losing too many organizations to displacement, and we’re certainly losing the soul of our city, which is arts, music and culture and creativity.”
Last December, Austin City Council approved the use of up to $2.4 million in funds for the trust’s first two projects. Firstly, converting 7,006 square foot of the City of Austin Permitting and Development Center’s parking garage on Middle Fiskille into a flexible art space. Second, renovating the Millennium center, at an estimated cost of $400,000.
The money for the trust comes from different avenues. In 2018, voters approved a proposition allocating a $12 million to acquiring and improving creative spaces. The trust also has received $2.4 million from the Hotel Occupancy Tax Funds and $2.5 million from a City of Austin allocation. John Riedie, the chief executive officer of the Austin Creative Alliance, said that keeping the arts alive requires more than a paintbrush and a dream. “There’s no way in today’s market that a scrappy group of artists is going to find a warehouse and convert it into an art complex.”
Sharron Anderson, an advisory board member and founding executive director of ATX theatre, added that many of the 80 theatre companies in Austin also struggle to find space to operate. “You have to knit together several things in order to make ends meet to be a theater artist here. The Cultural Trust is a beacon of hope for many theater companies who have lost their space or are looking to set down roots.”
With the trust’s money, the AEDC hopes to improve infrastructure and investment to help arts thrive. “This isn’t just a grant program,” Haynes said. “We’re either helping facilitate capital improvements to buildings to secure them long term or to build new facilities.”
Haynes explained that the advisory committee chose the two projects to start with as they are fairly easy to complete and are city-owned properties. “They appealed to us because you were taking an existing sitting facility and you were making it more utilizable by a lot of different organizations. … We thought that enhancing a city owned facility was the best chance to stick around for the long term.”
Riedie, who also serves as a member of the advisory committee, argued the city’s legal interpretation for the bond money only allows it to be used on city-owned facilities, although council envisioned the funds being used for privately-owned property. “I think they’ve taken too narrow of an interpretation that has hamstrung the intentions [of the council],” Riedie said. “We’re going to learn in the next round of bond elections how to frame it better. And we’ll continue to plug away on worthy community projects with the money we have.
Once renovations to the Millennium center are completed, Wright says she hopes the facility can be used for performing arts groups along with school functions such as speech competitions. “We wanted to make it more multi-use and a good neighborhood space that would help meet some of the community needs. I’m already being approached by people in the music and arts industry because there’s not enough space available in Austin, available space that’s affordable,”
Riedie added that, in addition to city initiatives, he hopes the culture of the city changes so more people embrace the arts. “We really need to build that culture where more people who live here understand that it’s important to support arts and culture,” he said. “Culturally vibrant cities, as defined by cities that have working artists, tend to have the edge economically … But I think more importantly, is what artists bring to the fabric of daily life and that is the cultural experiences to participate in, to consume or learn for everybody who lives in the city.”
For Wright, that goes back to the community-based nature of the Millennium. “We can create something good here that will be long lasting and affordable. Everything we’re doing in that space will last another 23 years.”