"My experience is it's one of the best halls I've performed in," said West Virginia Symphony conductor Grant Cooper. "I go to other halls across the country and I'm constantly reminded how good it is.
"The building is remarkably flexible. It works very well as a performance hall but also works well as a stage, with the orchestra in the pit, for ballet or opera."
Visiting artists universally praise it, too, Cooper said. "But even more is what I hear from audience members, even from large cities, comparing it to their halls back home."
Hired in 2001, Cooper and the orchestra played in the auditorium for several years, waiting for the Clay Center to open. He recalls the first concert there. "It was like opening a present on Christmas Day, from Santa Claus."
Because of its location across from CAMC General Hospital, designers built in $1 million of sound proofing to make sure helicopters or sirens wouldn't spoil a delicate violin solo.
Walls are double-thick, with insulation between, as is the Maier Hall ceiling. "Eighteen inches of concrete, 8 feet of air and insulation, and another 18 inches of concrete," Sergi said.
As good as the hall is, Cooper and others say the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
"I don't know of any other building like this, anywhere," Cooper said. "The Clay Center is an incomparable monument. It's groundbreaking, to combine music, art and the sciences."
Wellington would add education to that list.
"We provide education to the public, plus we provide programming for schools," she said. One program provides after-hours enrichment at three Boone County middle schools. Another supplies musical instruments and instructors to kids in Kanawha, Clay, Mingo, Lincoln and Mason counties.
"It's a great program. Let's say a kid plays guitar. If they stick with it after a year, they're given the guitar. That program was endowed by Lyell Clay ... just before he died."
School groups visit, of course, by the busload -- from 50 West Virginia counties.
But the Clay Center will soon take its message to the road in the form of a mobile science exhibit, packed into a pop-out truck. "We would take that to schools, mainly in the northern part of the state," Wellington said. The idea is to take kids in distant counties out of their classrooms for an hour or two, rather than the full day it would take to visit Charleston.
Money, image, parking issues
Even after it opened, the Clay Center has struggled to make ends meet. That's not unusual for such a facility. Through it all, Avampato has kept a close eye on operations.
"I'm still on the board at the Clay Center," he said. "We put that in our stipulation of our grant. We wanted to follow up. I've been in charge of finance since day one. I know where the dollars go. They had to be accountable for that.
"The one thing that was way out in left field was the operating costs. We've cut that back significantly," he said. "The biggest thing we had to protect was the programming."
Clay family generosity continued throughout the last 10 years, with annual gifts of about $1 million a year, he said. Total giving for the center to date is about $64 million, but the gravy train is about to stop.
"Our last grant was in subsidizing the operating funds ... over a two-year period. It's taken longer than expected to find a permanent replacement for that fund.
"Our weakness, if we have one, is contributing revenue -- support from the state, county and city," Avampato said. "They were very generous in the construction.
"There needs to be a commitment, a special tax. Maybe with all the revenue the state will be getting from natural gas there can be support for the arts."
One key to streamlining operations was the merger in 2006 of the former Sunrise offices with the Clay Center staff, Wellington said. That's when Wellington, a former Sunrise president, replaced the retiring Sergi.
Overall, the building has held up well for 10 years, she said. "We're going to have to change some of the carpet in the grand lobby. The building is very expensive to maintain. We spend over $1 million a year. That's a big piece of our operating budget."
Sergi and Wellington continue to fine-tune the list of performers, in part to attract a wider audience and dispel the center's hoity-toity South Hills image.
"We made some mistakes with programming at first," Sergi said. "If they cannot pronounce it, they will not come."
In other words, go for familiar names.
"We have in the last four to five years tried to bring in a younger audience and work to become more diverse geographically," Wellington said.
Performers like Jason Mraz and Old Crow Medicine Show fit the bill. More than half of the Old Crow Medicine Show audience was 30 or younger.
For the entire spring Clay Center Presents season this year, 32 percent of the audience was younger than 40, marketing manager Katrina Harmon said, and 5 percent were from out of state. Headliners attract more folks from adjacent states, she said, thanks to the Internet.
"Use of our halls has grown over the years," Wellington said. "We have promoters coming in now."
Records show the Maier Hall was booked 149 days in the year that ended June 30, while the Grand Lobby was used 157 days.
The "black box" Walker Theater, home to the Woody Hawley concert series, also has proved popular for weddings and other events.
Clay Center organizers never got the parking garage they longed for. The city of Charleston, struggling to make bond payments on existing garages, couldn't build another one. Yet patrons have learned to find parking -- either on designated lots or elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Lack of neighborhood growth is a surprise
Despite all its success, the Clay Center never lived up to one of its primary goals -- an economic stimulus. From the very start, promoters said the center would soon be surrounded by restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. Real estate gurus like Brooks McCabe and Jon Cavendish repeated the mantra almost until opening day.
"It hasn't happened," Cavendish said recently. "It fooled us all. We all thought there would be economic upgrades -- restaurants, video arcades, everything. Just look at that restaurant that used to be Chef Dan's. There's been five or six owners there."
"The future is here, and I've waited it out," Chef Dan Ferguson said in November 2003, nine years after he opened his restaurant at 222 Leon Sullivan Way, just across the street from the Clay Center.
"They should shoot an aerial picture now and compare it 10 years from now. It'll be incredible."
But Ferguson gave up suddenly in 2005, seeking greener pastures in Pittsburgh. The restaurant is now called Bruno's.
Even Thomas was caught up in the excitement. He envisioned housing and businesses on some of the nearby parking lots. "It's the perfect opportunity to convert some of those to businesses that will complement the Clay Center."
Be patient, McCabe said. "I clearly think it is one of the fundamental building blocks for development in the city.
"It is a major destination. What has not happened to the degree I thought it would in the last 10 years is the development around it," McCabe says.
But he still believes. "You will see that. It's not a matter of if, but when."
Alisa Bailey, CEO of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said change is already underway. "It's interesting to see what's happened in the last 10 years. I'm not saying the Clay Center has caused all that, but the Clay Center has helped. You're seeing the East End coming back, new restaurants opening. That all fits together.
"It doesn't happen overnight. It's not like 10 years and it's there."
Reach Jim Balow at ba...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.