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Could International Storytelling Center have a buyer?

Yet another member of a local philanthropic family may be coming to the aid of the financially troubled International Storytelling Center.
The Herald & Tribune has learned Sonia King, daughter of ISC benefactor James C. Martin, is offering financial backing for the organization in negotiations with the mortgage holder, Rural Development – USDA.
Since filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 31, 2010, the ISC has waded through the process of putting its house back in order.
Part of that process, ISC President Jimmy Neil Smith says, includes creating a plan for the future, not just for the entity, but also its physical location – the center’s building located on Main Street in the heart of Jonesborough’s historic district.
King, who has served as a volunteer and part-time employee at the ISC, was named to the organization’s Board of Directors in January. Her father also serves on the ISC board and has been a generous contributor to the center, donating $1 million to the ISC in 2009.
Later that year, the ISC’s storytelling hall was dedicated and named in honor of Martin’s late wife and King’s mother, Mary B. Martin.
Now, it appears, King is ready to make her own contribution to the preservation of the ISC.
King met with ISC’s bankruptcy attorney Mark Dessauer twice in early May to discuss a proposal for the purchase of the building.
Smith says King is working with the ISC in its efforts to settle with Rural Development so the ISC can keep its ownership of the facility.
According to Smith, if Rural Development accepts the proposed offer, it would allow the ISC to retain ownership of the building for the appraised value of $728,000 instead of the full mortgage price of $2.4 million.
Smith said the plan is in the “very, very early stages of discussion,” but later acknowledged a preliminary offer has already been sent to Rural Development.
“We have discussed that we would be able to settle with them for the price of the appraisal,” Smith said. “At his point in time, we haven’t heard back from them. However, we are hoping to hear very soon.”
Smith described the building as “well-built” and “expensive,” but said the market value of it is much lower than the cost to build because it is a “single-purpose” building.
“It is so much a part of our community and our economic development strategy here in Jonesborough that it would be a shame for the center not to be used for storytelling,” Smith said.
Should the USDA not accept the proposal, it appears local government agencies may step in.
“Washington County and the City of Johnson City have both invested $750,000 in the Storytelling Center, so they have fiduciary responsibility to protect their investment,” Smith said.
“Even though the Town of Jonesborough hasn’t made an investment at that level, they too, have made significant contributions.”
Smith said all the entities want the ISC to succeed and have made three recommendations for how to make that happen.
For starters, Smith says, Washington County and Johnson City have both requested the first right of refusal if the ISC building becomes available for sale.
“If something were to happen in the future,” Smith says, “they would like to have, within our agreements, the right to purchase the building for the long haul, for the continuation of the storytelling program and future uses that would serve the city and county.”
Washington County and the Town of Jonesborough have also requested representation on the ISC board.
“Each would be appointed by those entities to bring long-term local representation to the board and would give the ISC a connection with our community that would build support and engagement in the future,” Smith said.
Finally, Smith says, the entities want ISC’s management to be restructured.
While Smith said he hasn’t been asked to step down from his post as the ISC president, he said his future with the organization is in transition.
“We’re making a transition even now,” he said. “We have a director of finance who is assuming more and more responsibilities, and other staff members are coming to the table to enhance the management of their own areas. So actually it is slowly, but surely, coming forward.”
Still, Smith says he hopes to play a role in the ISC’s future – one of founding president, who would serve as a spokesperson with responsibilities for programming, and products and services that generate new revenue.
It is a job, he says he “can do — and wants to do.”
Smith also hinted that retirement might be an option.
“I’m 64 years old,” he said. “I guess the time has come for us to really consider what leadership the ISC will need in the future. I want to see the building used forever for storytelling, in particular, and cultural arts in general.
“But most of all, I want to see us maintain our position here in Jonesborough as the ‘Storytelling Capital of the World.’”