Plans in the works for major upgrades to Baton Rouge River Center’s theater and ballroom _lowres

Advocate file photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Diana Ross performs in the River Center, Theatre for the Performing Arts Friday, Feb. 8, 2013

The Baton Rouge River Center’s theater and ballroom may undergo more than $12 million in renovations over the next few years in an effort to modernize the complex to help it remain competitive.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council will vote Wednesday on whether to appropriate $1.8 million toward designs for the improvements. The money for the designs is in the bank and available and would come from rebates of state sales taxes.

City-parish Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel said the problems with the theater and ballroom have become dire, and they cannot wait any longer to fix them. He said they plan to pay for the construction by using bonds and money from state rebates that they dedicate to the River Center.

“The roof is leaking, and the thing is falling apart,” Daniel said about the theater. “It’s time to do something.”

Mayor-President Kip Holden said earlier this week he was looking forward to River Center renovations in 2016. Daniel said the money for construction will be part of an $18 million package that includes a dock expansion for Viking River Cruises.

City-parish architect Jim Frey said they plan to fix the roof on both the theater and ballroom and to upgrade fire safety systems, sound systems, restrooms and more.

Frey also said they hope to install an elevator in the theater, which does not have one — a lack that means many people with disabilities cannot access the facility.

The plans also call for adding two rows of seating to the theater and more strategic ticketing locations.

He said the ballroom is a former exhibition hall and still carries those characteristics. Frey wants it to become a legitimate ballroom.

If any money is left over, Frey said, he envisions adding restrooms to the River Center’s plaza area to serve the general public.

“I’m happy to see all of this getting done,” Frey said. “It’s far past due. From an architect’s point of view, I’m excited about it.”

Frey said it is too early to talk about a timeline of when construction might begin. City-parish Finance Director Marsha Hanlon said construction likely would start after the 2017 U.S. Bowling Congress Women’s Championships, which the capital city will host.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Baton Rouge River Center General Manager Michael Day said when asked about the money the Metro Council will be voting on for the designs.

Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer said an improved River Center theater and ballroom could help draw more people downtown and bring more events to the area.

“I’m elated that the city is looking at doing some improvements,” Rhorer said. “The River Center, like the Shaw Center and other things, draw people downtown. Those improvements are always welcome.”