CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Judy Wellington recalls the massive pit downtown when she moved to West Virginia to take the helm at a modest art museum on Myrtle Road in 2000.
The pit, which took up a large city block, was to become a new arts and sciences center and Wellington, as president of Sunrise Museum, was charged with its transition into the new building, where she would head up the art and science component.
Wellington was undaunted by the scope of the project. She came to Charleston from New Jersey, where she had been in charge of the New Jersey State Aquarium, but she'd previously been involved with a major construction project at the Philadelphia Zoo.
"It probably wasn't as scary for me as it would have been for someone else," she said.
There were a few bumps in the road with construction of the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences - including an opening that was delayed several months even after performers and events had been scheduled.
But when it happened, visitors were impressed.
The very first got to see it during a black-tie gala July 10, 2003 that included 700 guests and music by the Bob Thompson Quartet and the Novo Tempo Big Band.
The $118 million, 243,000-square-foot center officially opened to public two days later - to 2,000 lucky visitors who snatched up all available tickets to the first day's festivities.
Since then, 1.5 million people have come through the front doors, to hear a musical performance, watch a play, see an exhibit, play in the science museum or watch a planetarium show or large-screen movie.
Wellington, now the president and chief executive of the Clay Center, has been there to ride out all of the bumps in the road - and to enjoy the center's evolution.
She credits the board and particularly treasurer Chuck Avampato, former director of the Clay Foundation, for running a tight financial ship and reacting appropriately when necessary.
"That's what he does and he has been phenomenally helpful to me and Rebecca (Gillispie, the chief financial officer)," Wellington said.
"Like everybody, we have challenges," she added. The Clay Foundation, a substantial supporter of the center both early on and in its first years of operation, provided about 15 percent of its budget until it closed down two years ago.
"They were such huge supporters of the city and that's hurting everybody," Wellington said.
"But we're still doing fine. This year, we are coming out with a teeny, teeny, teeny surplus - but we won't have a deficit this year. We haven't had a deficit ever."
There are about 630 subscribers to the Clay Center's upcoming Clay Center Presents series, the most ever. The Broadway Series sells extremely well each season.
The Clay Center's 1,880-seat Maier Performance Hall has filled to the brim for artists such as James Taylor, Tony Bennett, and more recently, the Old Crow Medicine Show and Scotty McCreery.
The latter were a particular feather in the Clay Center's cap because they attracted younger audiences.