Otis Redding Foundation to build new center, expanding access to countless children
By Michael W. Pannell
Photography by Matt Odom
When slots fill each year for the Otis Redding Foundation’s music camps, lessons and other programs, there are cries from un-signed parents and students, “Can’t you take just one more?”
Due to space — not lack of desire — the answer eventually has to be, “Sorry, we’re just out of room.”
But that is changing.
In March, the foundation announced plans to create a 9,000-square-foot Otis Redding Center for the Arts in downtown Macon at the corner of Cotton Avenue and Cherry Street. It will be located just a block south of the foundation’s current, much smaller 339 Cotton Ave. museum, office and student lesson center.
Officials said the move means an 800-percent increase in room to serve more participants with better facilities at Otis Music Camps for older kids, Dream Camps for younger ones, music lessons and music industry-related courses and programs related to creative arts.
The new facility adds more and better instructional and performance areas, modern labs, practice rooms, songwriting and recording studio spaces and other spots to encourage and educate coming generations of musicians. The goal is to not only help participants hone entertainment skills but to achieve their best in school and become engaged, community-minded citizens.
Plans also include building a corner amphitheater for student performances and as a fitting new home for Macon’s iconic Otis Redding statue.
Redding’s widow, Zelma Redding, created the Otis Redding Foundation in 2007 to carry on her husband’s philanthropic passion. As his musical fame grew, Redding become known for providing scholarships to deserving college and university hopefuls and had invited 300 Bibb County school children to the first-ever Otis Camp at his “Big O Ranch” north of Macon.
His plans were that it not be the last.
“This is something we’ve been working on based on the vision my father had with that first music camp in 1966,” said Karla Redding-Andrews, Redding’s daughter who was 5 years old in 1967 when he died. Redding-Andrews serves, non-salaried, as the foundation’s vice president and executive director while her mother, Zelma Redding, is the organization’s non-salaried president and founder.
“He invited the kids out to learn about music and the music business and to stress to them the importance of education,” Redding-Andrews said. “He planned to continue camps, and if he’d lived I’m sure there would already be an arts center like this here and probably others around the U.S. and world. We’re just following his love for kids and desire to help them and give back to the community.”
ROOM TO GROW
The current Cotton Avenue site was originally part of Redding-Andrews’ shoe and clothing store operations. When she closed the business and the foundation was officially begun, the property became the foundation’s home. There is only modest room for on-site student lessons and it’s far too small to host the typical 50 to 60 enrollees at camps.
Hosting camps elsewhere, the foundation’s first camp was at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and more recently on the campuses of Mercer University and Mount de Sales Academy. Upon the new facility’s hopeful 2023 opening, Redding-Andrews said she anticipates numbers will quickly reach 200 for lessons and foundation activities.
She said many students coming for lessons and camps attend on scholarships if they are unable to pay. Going forward, 25 percent to 30 percent will be from underserved populations.
“We’re so grateful to have had the relationships we’ve had in conducting camps at other locations but, of course, it will be so much better having our own place,” Redding-Andrews said. “Everything we need will be right there and participants, coaches and instructors can count on regular, definite dates from year to year. We can spend less time worrying about logistics and focus more on young people. That’s the thing.”
During March ceremonies at the center’s site, Redding-Andrews drew attention more on meeting young people’s needs than on her father’s famous name being on the building.
“We, as a community, owe this to our young people,” she said. “There’s so much going on in the world right now to distract students from doing the right thing — to distract even us from doing the right thing. So, let’s make a difference; let’s be the change.”
Lisa Garrett is a retired career teacher and current member of the Bibb County Board of Education as well as the educational grant director for the Griffith Family Foundation. She said she knows firsthand the difference programs like the foundation’s can make and looks forward to the larger impact it will have.
“I’ve seen it personally, and research backs up that children who participate in fine arts programs do better academically,” she said. “My history has been in Title I schools teaching economically disadvantaged children, and I know highlighting children’s strengths in the arts is so helpful. It’s amazing what children do in the Otis Redding Foundation’s programs now, and I can only imagine what the new Otis Redding Center for the Arts will mean and do for so many more children in the days and years ahead.”
Redding-Andrews said that is the goal.
“We want to make sure it’s understood this is not about extending the legacy of Otis Redding by creating a place with his name on it,” she said. “My father’s musical legacy is well established, solid and doesn’t really need our help. It will last forever.
“What’s important is extending that part of him that wanted to help kids who have dreams, like he had dreams, to become equipped to achieve them. What they learn and who they become here will help them be their best in all areas of life.”
The dream is, with community help, to build a place where dreams come true because young people have been inspired and equipped to make their dreams reality.
DK Williams, who goes by the artist name DKOMX, said his experience at Otis Redding camps and lessons was life changing.
“The main thing is, as a kid I would always be rapping and doing music in an unorganized, unprofessional way,” he said. “Being at the center was really eye-opening and helped me approach things in a more beneficial, organized way and realize what I was doing could be more than playing around. It could be a career path and something I needed to take seriously.”
He said another benefit was singing in the foundation’s Dream Team performance group in community settings. He said it gave him confidence to perform before large crowds.
Today, DK attends Florida A&M University pursuing a double major in theater and psychology. One major will help further his dream of being a full-time recording artist and possible television or film director, and the other will allow him to help others.
COMMUNITY ON BOARD
In 2020, the Knight Foundation provided a $200,000 research grant to locate property and develop a plan for the new arts center.
“The arts play a pivotal role in building more inclusive and engaged communities,” said Koven Smith, Knight Foundation’s senior director of arts. “Knight is looking forward to new opportunities that will be available to Macon’s music students and musicians in the Otis Redding Foundation’s new state-of-the-art facility. We see the facility as a key means for the Otis Redding Foundation to continue to cultivate Macon as the music hub of the South.”
Once located, Zelma Redding gave $1 million toward purchasing the Cotton Avenue-Cherry Street site consisting of a corner parking lot, adjacent property that was home to Nu-Way Wieners before being destroyed by fire, plus two additional buildings. Architectural work incorporating the new and existing buildings were led by BTBB Inc.
Another early donor in the project was the Griffith Foundation, led by Benjy Griffith, who gave $1 million. Most recently, the Peyton Anderson Foundation pledged $1 million to be paid when matched by other donations totaling $4 million.
“The Peyton Anderson Foundation is deeply invested in the impact of regional arts and culture on our community. It creates a sense of place, enhances community vibrancy and generates cultural tourism. When that impact is combined with access to music education and the global recognition that comes with Otis Redding’s legacy, we have tremendous opportunity,” said Karen Lambert, president of the Peyton Anderson Foundation. “The foundation grant will go to the construction of this visionary center, which will become the premier training ground for our continued music heritage.”
The Otis Redding Center for the Arts has an estimated budget of $5 million. The foundation continues fundraising efforts as well as the ongoing work to fund programs and scholarships for children.
Of course, to build a dream center takes a team, and Redding-Andrews said she believes the foundation has a dream team to do it: Sheridan Construction and Stafford Builders & Consultants Inc.
“Before we even closed on the property, a team from Sheridan and Stafford sat down with us and said they knew this would be challenging for us and then simply asked, ‘What can we do to help? How can we make this dream come true?’ People usually come in asking, ‘How much money do you have? Here’s what we can do.’ But they asked, ‘How can we help?’ They wanted to be involved in everything from the fundraising to the actual building and realized what an impact it could have on kids, families and the whole community.”
Redding-Andrews said she and her mother considered the decision to hire the partnering companies “a no-brainer,” especially knowing that doing so meant the effort would be led by women. Wykesia Stafford, president of Stafford Builders & Consultants, called it a fun collaboration.
“It’s great to be working on something that’s going to impact the community in such a positive way,” said Stafford. “Karla and the foundation will multiply the capacity of what they’re already doing and remove limitations. That’s the goal, but the fun part is it being women led. I think we bring a unique structure to the project and already I see we have an understanding of one another’s strengths. We’re extremely collaborative and less competitive. I think in some ways, women tend to give beyond what’s required. After our business meetings, we hang around, talk with each other and don’t just run out. It may seem frivolous, but I’ve seen it add to the project in a nurturing way. After all, that’s what this project is about as we build a place where children from all parts of our community can grow and work together.”
Christy Kovac is president and CEO of Sheridan Construction. She said the company has brought in Stafford Construction as an industry partner on a number of major projects from the Northeast High School-Appling Middle School builds and renovations to historic refurbishments like the Grand Opera House.
“We look for projects that let us be part of the community and don’t see them as building just buildings,” she said. “We want to see Karla Redding and her organization beaming when the project is over. That’s what keeps us motivated. We want them to have the perfect place to expose more and more children to music and the arts, kids who may never have the chance without the Otis Redding Foundation’s backing. I don’t have the right adjectives to say how I feel, but it makes me proud to be a part of their dream, even if it’s a small part. We need to invest in future generations and, based on what I’ve learned in my own life, education is the key to opportunity. I’m excited to be among these women and a diverse team of women at that — one representing all our community. It’s been a long time coming, but were getting there. This is a good example.”
Kovac said next steps in the process include evaluating buildings that have been empty for decades to see that they are stabilized for future work.
Redding-Andrews said, “You know, historic Cotton Avenue is actually where my dad walked, had his offices and made dreams come true. I can’t wait to see what happens there now.”
The Otis Redding Foundation and new Otis Redding Center for the Arts is dedicated to improving the quality of life for the community through educating and empowering its youth. You can be a part of making dreams come true. To donate or learn more, contact the foundation at email@example.com or 478-742-5737. Donate directly at Otisreddingfoundation.org/donate.