Vision for a new arts center begins to come into focus

Should the organization’s ambitious plans come to fruition, the new arts campus could include a 250-seat theater, exhibition space, offices, classrooms, outdoor spaces and room for a parking lot, replacing the McFeeds building and another small house that stands on a parcel of land next door to the Blue Heron Art Center.

Vashon Allied Arts is in the process of crafting a budget and formulating plans to construct a multimillion-dollar performing arts facility near the southeast corner of Vashon Highway and Cemetery Road.

Should the organization’s ambitious plans come to fruition, the new arts campus could include a 250-seat theater, exhibition space, offices, classrooms, outdoor spaces and room for a parking lot, replacing the McFeeds building and another small house that stands on a parcel of land next door to the Blue Heron Art Center.

According to Molly Reed, VAA’s executive director, the effort represents the arts organization’s response to a “need to increase capacity for our current and future programs as well as provide space for other Vashon-Maury community arts groups and visiting artists.”

She said she dreams of facilities “that meet high artistic standards and are compatible with the way our community honors and supports artists, audiences, patrons, learners of all ages and families.”

“Our intent,” she added, “is to off-load some of the demand on the Vashon High School theater and provide a small, intimate, well-appointed theater with excellent acoustics for the presentation of music, theater and dance.”

VAA currently owns a contiguous expanse of property on the busy corner, having purchased the McFeeds parcel in May for $600,000, with funds raised primary from one Island philanthropist. The parcel sandwiched between McFeeds and the Blue Heron was purchased several years ago.

In an indication of how far along VAA is in its planning process, Reed said the organization has won a coveted spot on a short list of arts organizations set to receive significant state funding in the next two years to construct or upgrade their facilities.

The funding, if it makes it through the budget process and is approved by the state Legislature early next year, will come through a state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED) program called Building for the Arts. Since its inception in 1991, Building for the Arts has helped pay for more than 150 building projects by arts organizations statewide.

For the 2009-2011 state capital budget, Building for the Arts will recommend an allocation of almost $11.6 million dollars for 22 organizations, including $1.115 million for VAA to build its new facility.

But in order to access that money by the end of the budget biennium, VAA will need to raise several million more dollars for the project by 2011.

According to Reed, additional money will come from “grants, corporations, foundations and people on this Island who have the means and the will to make this happen.” She added that VAA has already raised slightly more than $1 million from individuals to pay for costs associated with the project.

Reed said she isn’t ready to announce a price tag for the project, which would conclude with a complete rehabilitation of the 96-year-old Blue Heron Art Center to make room for additional classes in that building. In VAA’s application for the CTED grant, however, she estimated the costs for the new building project at $11 million.

“But that’s too high,” she said. “And that’s something we have to figure out — how to compromise and balance what we’d love to have with what we can actually pay for. The practical aspect of this is very important.”

What is also important to Reed is that the new facility be used by other Island performing groups, especially Vashon Island Chorale and Drama Dock.

Chorale president JoAnn Bardeen said chorale representatives have been very involved in discussing and conceptualizing VAA’s new building.

“It’s fabulous news,” she said. “This will mean a dedicated space that fits our needs. There will be space for 90 singers and an orchestra, a green room and art on the walls at intermission.

“It will be just like going downtown to Benaroya Hall, only a Vashon version,” Bardeen said, adding, “It’s one of the most exciting things I have seen on the Island since moving here in 1983.”

Gerry Feinstein, who is a chorale board member, agreed.

“I can tell you that if this is happens, we’ll be in heaven,” Feinstein said. “For years and years, we have sung in places that were uncomfortable for both audiences and the chorale. “We’ve been talking about this for years. All the arts groups — dance and drama — will benefit and grow from having a place to perform.”

Phil Dunn, Drama Dock’s current president, has also been involved in discussions about the new space.

“We’ve been in the loop,” Dunn said. “They’ve been asking our opinion, and Drama Dock is one of the planned parties to rent the space when it is available. From Drama Dock’s standpoint, we’re willing to do anything we can to help. It’s a beautiful location.”

Dunn added that he is concerned the building is being planned in a time of economic uncertainty.

“I hope the Island supports it,” he said. “I know they would have in the past; it’s just that now people are being hit with so many different catastrophes.”

Scarlett Foster-Moss, VAA’s board president, said the board is “working through the process” of gauging the community’s willingness to support the building project.

“There is no doubt there will be lots of community input,” she said. “It’s a question now of how do we do that and at what point in the process.”

Reed said she doesn’t know if VAA ticket prices and class fees will go up as a result of the new building project.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that it would cost more,” she said. “But people have to realize that just as we raise money for our scholarship program today, we could also raise money for a ticket program. The idea is to increase access, not decrease access.”

VAA’s decision to move forward on its ambitious construction project comes at the same time that the Vashon Island School District is preparing to put forward a $79.45 million bond to construct a new high school building and renovate several existing structures. Included in the school district’s plans is a $400,000 upgrade to the high school’s 275-seat theater.

Even though VAA’s project would not affect property taxes, both Reed and Foster-Moss said they will be paying close attention to the results of the bond vote as they move forward with VAA’s plans.

“We are supporters of that endeavor, and we think the Island needs to make that decision first,” Reed said. “Then people can decide if they want to support the development of an arts campus. Obviously, not everyone will, but we have legions of people who support the arts here and who will want to support us.”

“The economy and the need for the school bond to pass is a major factor in our planning,” echoed Foster Moss. “If it fails to pass, we would want to understand why it failed. We’d want to dissect that.”

Reed said she is also aware and appreciative of the new “O” performance space on Vashon, created by Janet McAlpin and David Godsey.

“What they are doing fills another niche in the community,” she said. “The difference with what we’re doing is that we are a nonprofit organization that has existed on the Island for 42 years, with trustees that represent a cross-section of the community.”

Reed said VAA presents 12 gallery shows per year, not including its annual art auction, which includes work by 120 artists. VAA also offers 150 continuing arts education classes per year and produces more than 50 performances, including dance, music and theater. VAA programs, she said, reach 6,000 Islanders a year — nearly six in 10 people living on Vashon.

“We’ve been doing our homework for almost two years, evaluating our programs, looking at the costs and how to sustain a new facility. That is why before we asked anyone else on the Island, we knew we had to have a solid plan in place,” Reed said.

For now, Reed hopes Vashon arts supporters will write to Gov. Christine Gregoire and urge her to include CTED’s Building for the Arts, including VAA’s $1,115,000 allocation for a new building, in the budget she will soon submit to the state Legislature.

Reed said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the funding will make it into the governor’s budget and be enacted into law.

“It’s going to be a tough cycle,” she said, referring to the current economic downturn and recent announcements that the state faces a $5 billion budget shortfall. “But we have the potential of bringing $1 million to Vashon to build an arts campus that so many people have wanted for so many years.”

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