VAA moves forward with arts center project

Bruce Morser, a member of VAA’s board and its building committee, talks with open house visitors about plans for the new arts center on Sunday. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Bruce Morser, a member of VAA’s board and its building committee, talks with open house visitors about plans for the new arts center on Sunday.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Bruce Morser, a Vashon Allied Arts board member, said he’s sometimes asked if VAA is still planning to build a performing arts center.

“We didn’t just fall asleep,” Morser said at the organization’s open house on Sunday.

Indeed, the open house last weekend was VAA’s first public event surrounding its ambitious Vashon Center for the Arts project in about a year.

The arts organization has been busy over the past 12 months, Morser told the small crowd at the event, working through the construction permitting process, grappling with the historic district nomination for Center and working with Vashon High School officials to determine how plans for a new high school theater may affect VAA’s project.

Now, VAA is ready to “get the popular side of this going again, because we think we’ve done our homework,” Morser said.

At the open house, attended by about 30 people, VAA presented plans and artistic renderings of the proposed Vashon Center for the Arts, a 20,000-square-foot structure that has been met with mixed reviews by islanders. Plans for the building include a 300-seat theater with a small orchestra pit, a 1,000-square-foot art gallery, classroom space and a 2,000-square-foot lobby that could also serve as a gathering place for fundraising events and community galas.

Morser, in a talk at the open house, acknowledged that the $16.9 million project has been criticized by some who feel the center is too large or flashy for rural Vashon and the intersection at Center. He said he believes VAA has designed a building that’s functional and can serve multiple purposes but isn’t extravagant or showy.

“This isn’t Benaroya Hall,” he said.

The open house came on the heels of news that the project would receive a long-awaited determination of nonsignificance under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The SEPA approval that means the project has passed a thorough environmental review, which included a public comment period, and VAA can move forward in the construction permitting process.

While the organization received word of the SEPA approval last week, project manager Kirk Robinson said the county Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER) mailed the notice on Monday.

The determination, like many given under SEPA, came with a few conditions, Reed said.

The county ruled earlier this year that VAA could build a portion of its center into the buffer of a low-grade wetland on its five-acre site in exchange for restoring another swath of wetland there. Under the SEPA ruling, it must also craft a parking plan for when shows draw a large number of spectators as well as performers and thoroughly document the McFeeds building, a historical and deteriorating structure that will be torn down for construction.

Reed said the SEPA determination was significant in allowing the project to move forward.

“We’re very pleased that we’ve been able to resolve issues and concerns there that the county had,” she said.

While the permitting process seems to be moving forward, so is fundraising, VAA officials say. The arts organization has so far raised $7.9 million of its $13.5 million fundraising goal. A separate donation of about $8 million set up in trusts by islander Kay White, a donor who Reed called an “angel to us,” will be set aside as an operational reserve. That reserve, Morser said, will assure that VAA’s ticket prices stay low.

VAA also expects to garner grants and to  borrow about $3.5 million to help finance the construction.

Once VAA fundraisers secure another $1 million in private donations, the organization will begin a public campaign to raise the final $2.5 million for the project. The campaign will likely include selling the naming rights to portions of the new center.

“Everything is for sale,” Reed joked at the open house.

But a significant chunk of funding for the project currently hangs in the balance in Olympia. A $1.1 million allocation from the state Building for the Arts program has expired, but Reed hopes state officials will still somehow grant VAA the funds.

The funding, which is allocated in 2009, was part of a package that distributed $11.6 million in funding for 22 arts organizations statewide to improve or build new facilities.

To secure the funding, though, VAA was required to have all of its other fundraising for the building completed by 2011, when the state’s budget biennium ended.

When that didn’t happen, VAA was given a two-year extension for the funds, good through the state’s 2011-13 budget biennium.

Now, that budget biennium has ended, and VAA still hasn’t raised the funds necessary to access the $1 million in state funding. Organizations are not able to renew the funding for more than two budget cycles.

Reed, however, said she hopes that the Legislature will find a way to tuck the $1 million for VAA’s building into another portion of the state’s capital budget. She wasn’t exactly sure how that would happen, she said, but was hopeful that Sen. Sharon Nelson, a Vashon resident who she called a supporter of the project, was working on the issue in Olympia.

Nelson could not be reached for comment.

“We just don’t know yet,” Reed said.

Nonetheless, Reed, Morser and other board members on Sunday exuded confidence about the project and the fundraising process.

“We think we’re going to be good on the money. … We’re going to get there,” Morser said.

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