VAA to file permits to construct new center

Vashon Allied Arts is close to finalizing its plans for an ambitious new performing arts center, with groundbreaking for the 20,000-square-foot project tentatively scheduled for June or July.

The arts organization expects to submit a request for a building permit with King County next month, said Kirk Robinson, VAA’s project manager for the new arts center. The 21-day public comment period under the state’s environmental review process, meanwhile, will likely start in early February.

The organization, however, still has to raise several million dollars before construction can begin, VAA officials said, a goal that they said is challenging but within reach.

So far, VAA has $6.2 million in hand, more than half of it from Vashon philanthropist Kay White and another $1 million from the state. The arts organization needs to garner another $6 million — in cash or pledges — before construction can begin, said Executive Director Molly Reed.

“We obviously have a lot of money to raise,” she said. “But we’ve been talking to a lot of people. We have a plan laid out that makes this achievable. … I’m feeling really good about it.”

If the organization doesn’t raise the $12 million it needs to begin construction, VAA will postpone the groundbreaking but not change the size or scope of the project, Reed added.

“We’re going to build this building. We’re going to raise all this money,” she said. “The issue is whether we can meet the timeline that we’re hoping for right now.”

Robinson concurred. Asked if the organization has a “plan B,” he answered, “Right now, there is no plan B. The building doesn’t lend itself to constructing part of the building.”

Some Islanders continue to question the size and scale of the project, however, as well as the impact a $6 million-plus fundraising campaign could have on other charities.

Donna Klemka, a well-known Islander and former Vashon School Board member, said she believes the project is out of scale with the historic intersection where it will be located — across the street from the Old Fuller Store and kitty-corner to Minglemint.

“I have no argument with the arts organization wanting their own facility,” she said. “But I think siting it at that relatively small-scale historic area is just wrong. I understand it’s a private project, but it has an enormous public impact.”

Klemka wrote a commentary in The Beachcomber four months ago expressing her concerns about the scale of the project. After her piece ran, she said, several people told her they concurred but were hesitant to speak out.

“I know there’s opposition to this project that’s not being voiced,” Klemka said.

Jim Garrison, another Islander with deep roots on Vashon, said he, too, is troubled by the size. “I think it’s going to be an eyesore on that corner. I just think the site’s too small for that building,” he said.

Susan Kutscher, a VAA board member and chair of its communications committee, said she understands some of the upset. Indeed, she said, she’s talked to Klemka, whom she says is a friend and someone she admires greatly, about her concerns for the project.

But Kutscher said she believes the merits of the project outweigh the concerns about the building’s size and, like Reed, thinks the project is on a course toward completion.

“There’s always going to be disagreement on the look of it or the siting. … We’re going to look at it, and it’s going to be shocking at first. Nobody’s going to pretend it’s not a large building,” said Kutscher. “But my hope and my belief is that it will be an amazing community asset.”

After a series of open houses last summer, architects returned to the drawing boards and responded to some of the concerns that were voiced, including the look of the western side of the building, which abuts Vashon Highway. Several people who attended the open houses noted that the building’s west wall — which will stretch 240 feet from the intersection to the historic Blue Heron — seemed too imposing for the corner, Kutscher said, adding, “Several of us on the board didn’t like the look of it either.”

Since then, the architects have softened the look of the western length of the building, creating some openings so that it doesn’t seem so massive, she said. But the architects did not reduce the overall size of the building, Kutscher said.

“In order to have the acoustics as good as they’re going to be, (the building) has to have a certain volume. That’s inescapable,” she said.

VAA officials, meanwhile, acknowledge that the fundraising task before them is considerable. But according to Angela Luechtefeld, VAA’s deputy director who joined the organization a little more than two years ago, some significant “asks” have been made and some sizable donations will likely be announced soon.

The organization’s goal is to raise $13.5 million and carry a long-term $3.5 million loan so as to complete the $17 million project, Luechtefeld said. VAA will take out a short-term construction loan to begin building the project once it’s reached 90 percent of that $13.5 million goal, paying the loan off during the 18-month construction period as pledges come in, she said.

Should the organization break ground this summer, as hoped, the project would be completed by the end of 2013, a timeline that feels important to VAA, Reed said. White, the project’s main benefactor, will be 93 in 2013, and Reed said she wants to see the project completed in White’s lifetime.

“I think we owe it to her,” she said.

Meanwhile, VAA officials said, the organization is also thinking about how it will operate a 20,000-square-foot center, which will include a theater with three times as many seats as the current Blue Heron and an art gallery twice as big as the one in the Blue Heron. Operating costs will be higher, Reed said, as the new center will require more staff; she’s expecting she’ll have to hire four or five more people to the small organization, which now has a staff of about 11.

White has given VAA a trust, which is irrevocable, currently worth $6.5 million. Another donor has listed VAA as the beneficiary of his or her trust, valued at $1 million, though it’s a different kind of arrangement and the donor could change the beneficiary, Luechtefeld said. White, meanwhile, has a second trust valued at a little more than $1 million, with VAA listed in second position, she said.

The money from the various trusts will ultimately become VAA’s sustainability fund, a kind of endowment, Luechtefeld said, but without all the restrictions. How that fund is used will be determined by the board, which will establish a set of policies and procedures that would govern disbursements and that could not be changed on a whim, she said. Luechtefeld said she believes the operating gap between what the organization currently brings in and the costs of a new performing arts center will likely be about $150,000 a year, an amount the sustainability fund would help to cover.

New programming — such as big name performers who would only perform on Vashon if the venue were large enough — will add to the income stream, Luechtefeld predicted.

“We strongly anticipate growth within the first 10 years,” she said.

The organization hasn’t figured out how much small organizations would pay to use the theater, but Reed said VAA will come up with a scheme that keeps costs low.

“That’s why Kay and we decided all that money has to be thought of as an operating reserve — so our local nonprofits have affordable access to the building and they, in turn, can keep ticket prices affordable,” Reed said. “People worry. But that is absolutely the plan.”

Elizabeth Ripley, artistic director at Drama Dock, is one of those Islanders who worries. She said she supports the project and hopes VAA is successful. But Drama Dock, a small community theater group that struggles to make ends meet, can afford to put on only one show a year at the Blue Heron — a modest structure with low operating costs, she noted.

“I’m really hopeful they’re going to raise a lot more money (for the sustainability fund), because that’s what it’s going to take,” she said.

“I wholeheartedly support their desire to build a better facility, … and I’m thrilled they’ve made a commitment to the community,” Ripley added. “But am I worried it’s actually feasible? Sure. No one has sat me down and showed me budgets, but I just know that multi-million-dollar facilities eat money like honey.”


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