Little theater idea grows

Enthusiastic crowd shows support for arts center concept

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2000

Kenai Mayor John Williams' dream of a small theater grew to tremendous proportions at the first meeting on the subject.

Nearly 50 people, most of them artists, went to the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center Tuesday afternoon to make a case for including space for their own media. Potters were well represented, as were the theater, dancers, painters and other visual artists.

Williams said he called the meeting because of a groundswell of support that has arisen since he mentioned the idea at a city council meeting a few months ago.

"I heard a lot of discussion from various corners of the community and it became a roar, saying 'we need to do this,'" Williams said. "The time might be right for this."

Williams went on to say there's always one thing that keeps small communities going.

"Some communities have film festivals, some a theater, but everyone has a niche," Williams said. "We're starting to find a niche ourselves, and this might be it."

Organizers of the meeting, including Kathy Schwartz of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and Kathy Tarr of the visitors and cultural center, said they were thrilled at the turn out.

Williams, too, was excited.

"The last time we had a turnout like this, we built this," he said, gesturing to the visitors center.

With all the different artistic disciplines represented, the arts center plan has grown to almost 30,000 square feet.

The potters alone said they would need two spaces totaling 2,600 square feet with a totally separate ventilation system. Also included in the discussion, besides a 500-seat auditorium, was space for dance studios, pottery, culinary arts, exhibit and sales space, recording facilities, printmaking, vocal and piano practice classrooms, a child-care facility, a studio for local public radio station KDLL, and open space with, perhaps, even a lounge.

Williams was quick to point out that not everything mentioned would get its own space. Once discussions go forward, he said, consolidation of space uses could occur. Nevertheless, 28,000 square feet is the working estimate, and at $200 per square foot to build, Williams estimates the art center would cost $5.6 million.

"Of course, I wouldn't be surprised to see that climb to $7 million," he said.

Williams said that kind of money might be hard to get, but noted Kenai is becoming more better known as a community no longer revolving only around the oil community. In fact, one attendee, Helen Brown, said she didn't know why Kenai couldn't be the art center on the peninsula.

"Nobody died and made somewhere else the mecca of the arts world," Brown said.

The mayor said he envisions a project built through a public-private partnership, much like the Challenger Learning Center and the recently opened hockey rink. He said the center might qualify for partial funding from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

When his idea was for only a small theater, Williams said, he thought it could be combined with a hotel and convention center he would like to see built on a 19-acre lot on the bluff next to the senior center housing. Since the vision has expanded, Williams said he now has his eye on a lot across the Kenai Spur Highway from Kenai Central High School.

Williams brought in Deborah Maynard, a grant-writing consultant from Anchorage, to discuss funding for the art center. Her first bit of advice was that the group needed to figure out what it wanted to build before beginning to look for money.

"There is a tremendous amount of money out there with foundations," Maynard said. "A tremendous amount."

She also said support from the Kennedy Center would help.

"Having the Kennedy Center behind you is like having a golden star in your sky," she said. "It's tremendous validation."

The mayor called on all the art groups to select a member to be on a board of directors for the center and said a professional feasibility study should be commissioned. The next meeting about the proposed center will be on March 28 at 4 p.m. at the visitors center.

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