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VAA moves forward on expansion plans

A group of 30 civic and philanthropic leaders empaneled by Vashon Allied Arts has endorsed the organization’s feasibility study for a new performance hall, forwarding the report to VAA’s board and staff to determine next steps in the ambitious project.

The study — based on in-depth interviews with a number of Islanders — generated enthusiasm among members of the panel, including Jo Ann Bardeen, who co-chaired VAA’s Campaign Feasibility Study Committee.

“I cannot be a stronger backer of this project,” she said.

The group, according to those involved, also told VAA it was essential that it effectively communicate the need for a new multi-million-dollar performance hall and arts campus to a potentially uncertain community and garner more Island support as it moves forward.

The feasibility study was conducted by The Alford Group, a Seattle-based consulting firm.

“We voted to (instruct the board to) proceed with the recommendations of The Alford Group, which recommended that there be more dialogue with the user groups and the stakeholders and the community about what will work for the groups who use it,” Bardeen said. “There has to be input from people who are likely to use it.”

Emma Amiad, who also served on the committee, said much of the discussion focused on public perception and how VAA and its supporters can effectively convince Islanders that its facilities are cramped and ill-equipped for the wide range of programs it offers.

“VAA has done such a phenomenal job for so long that unless you’re involved in it, you don’t know they’re stretched for space. You don’t know the space is inadequate,” she said.

“Part of it was a brainstorming among the community members involved,” Amiad added, referring to the committee’s meeting when it reviewed the feasibility study. “How do we get that information out to the community in a way that’s helpful? How do we translate the need?”

Scarlett Foster-Moss, who chairs VAA’s board, and Molly Reed, VAA’s executive director, said they were encouraged by the feasibility study and the committee’s response to it and agreed with the study’s findings. The board, Foster-Moss said, will meet in early November, when it will decide if “we’re fiscally, emotionally and organizationally ready to move forward.”

“I don’t think there’s a chance we’ll say no,” she added.

But the size and shape of the project are still up in the air, she said. “At some level, it’s a matter of scale. It’s not a black and white, go-or-no-go decision.”

VAA’s desire to build a new facility became public in April 2008, when it announced its acquisition of the McFeeds building at the corner of Vashon Highway and Cemetery Road, a $600,000 purchase made possible because of a significant donation by Kay White, an Islander interested in seeing a new performance hall erected on Vashon.

Since then, the organization has secured additional private money and two significant grants — $1.1 million from the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development and $75,000 from 4Culture, a King County department that supports the arts.

Applications for the two government grants provide a window into VAA’s dreams for its new site. According to a design concept it submitted to 4Culture, dated April 1, 2008, VAA envisions a 16,000-square-foot facility where McFeeds now sits — a building that would house a 250-seat theater with a stage large enough for 90 singers and a 10-piece orchestra. The new building, according to the application, would also include a gallery, scene shop, costume shop and green room. An outdoor event space, the drawings show, would extend from the performance hall’s southern edge to where the Blue Heron Gallery now sits.

According to a timeline in the 4Culture grant request, construction was to begin in July, with occupancy by next September. An architectural rendering of the facility, meanwhile, suggested a modern structure made of steel and glass.

But both Reed and Foster-Moss said the purpose of the application was to put forward a vision, not details of the plan, and said it would be a mistake for the community to place too much stock in the proposal’s specifics or its graphics. Several Islanders have seen portions of the grant application, they added, contributing to what they said were misperceptions in the community.

“That was done two years ago,” said Foster-Moss. “The purpose was not to design a building or set a schedule. This is the wish list. We’d love to have a 250-seat theater. We’d love to have a green room. Will it look like this? No, not necessarily. I know there’s lots of confusion about this.”

“Anyone who presumes they know what it looks like is wrong,” she added. “It won’t be steel and glass. It’ll fit in culturally, architecturally and aesthetically.”

Foster-Moss and Reed also said they concur with the feasibility study’s call for more public engagement. Some of that is already happening, they said: The 30 people who comprised the committee included Islanders close to the organization as well as those less familiar with VAA. Foster-Moss and Reed declined to provide a list of the committee members, offering up only the names of the two co-chairs, Bardeen and Mary Carhart. They also declined to provide a copy of the feasibility study.

As VAA moves forward on the project, the board and staff expect to engage what Foster-Moss and Reed called “stakeholders” in the arts.

In a June 17 column in The Beachcomber, Foster-Moss urged Islanders to be patient about VAA’s plans, noting they’ll be able to “help shape the design of the new building by participating in upcoming community feedback sessions.”

Last week, however, she said those meetings likely won’t take the shape of “town-hall-style discussions.”

“We’re trying to get the best heads at the table,” she said. “We would be remiss in not acknowledging that the entire Island has a stake in this building. We acknowledge that it’s a big deal. We want to hear from stakeholders. ... But I don’t think that having big, open forums to discuss design serves a purpose.”

VAA, she added, “wants broad public engagement. But I don’t know what it will look like.”

Some Islanders are concerned by VAA’s approach, however, saying that the organization seems to be playing it too close to the vest. Duane Dietz, a landscape architect with an interest in historic preservation, said he’s worried that rank-and-file Islanders will be brought in “too late in the process to have meaningful input.”

Dietz, a former VAA board member, wrote a column for The Beachcomber raising concern about the impact a new structure could have on the historic nature of the four-corner intersection, known as Center — one of the few historically intact intersections left in King County. Even so, he said, no one at the organization has approached him to discuss his apprehensions.

“We do need an Island art center. I just want to make sure it fits in visually with the neighborhood,” he said.

Martin Koenig, a VAA volunteer and well-known arts presenter on Vashon, also said he’s concerned about the process, an approach that seems veiled to him.

“I feel that they’ve picked and chosen who they want to participate in this process — very intentionally,” he said. “They don’t want people at the table who will say, ‘Now, wait a second.’”

Koenig, who directed an arts organization in New York before coming to Vashon, said he’s particularly worried that a new, state-of-the-art performance hall could be financially difficult for VAA to sustain, resulting in pricier tickets or high-end performances that, out of necessity, would draw crowds from off-Island.

“Two hundred and fifty seats are a lot of seats to fill every weekend,” he said.

But others said it’s just too early to expect VAA to open up its process and object to the characterization that the board and staff are keeping the project under wraps.

“It’s frustrating when people say, ‘They’re doing this behind our back.’ Because they’re not. There’s nothing to go to the public with,” said Amiad, a member of the Campaign Feasibility Study Committee.

When the time is right, Amiad added, she trusts that the VAA board and staff will engage the public fully.

“There’s a lot of groundwork that has to be laid before you show people a picture and ask for their input,” she added.

— Staff writer Elizabeth Shepherd contributed to this report.

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