Theater idea gains steam in Kenai

Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2000

Another public-private partnership to spur economic development in the city of Kenai is on the minds of Mayor John Williams and the arts community.

Late last year, the mayor said he was approached by a group that would like the city's support in building a small community theater and art center.

"The group that approached me said they can get the funds to built a little theater with about 250 seats," Williams said. "With the council's approval, I'd like to appoint an investigative committee to explore how to fund and build a theater. I think the time might be right for this."

Williams said the theater group will probably wind up being a nonprofit organization like the Challenger Learning Center and the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

One of the people the mayor has been in contact with is Kathy Schwartz, the arts education specialist with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. She said the idea has been around for some time but was spurred on by a visit from the executive director of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Schwartz said the director saw the summer art education program presented at Kenai Peninsula College and said that if Kenai had a permanent arts center, it would be easier to gather funds to support it.

"Unless you have a place to call home, organizations will only fund you to a certain level," Schwartz said. "They're very careful and want to make sure you'll be around awhile. So if you have an executive director you can qualify for additional funding." Schwartz said her vision is to have something more than a little theater.

"I'd like to see an arts education center that would serve the entire peninsula and be a model for the rest of the state," she said. "Along with the Challenger Center and the Volcano Center, I see our community becoming the cultural and education center of the state."

Visitors and Convention Bureau Director Kathy Tarr agreed.

"We are an oil center, no doubt about that, but swirling around that is a large arts and cultural community," she said. "We are more than the oil patch."

Tarr has her eye on what is known as the Daubenspeck property on the Kenai bluff, overlooking the river, for the art center. It's the same spot on which Williams would like to see a hotel and convention center built.

Tarr said she envisions a combination of the two.

"What we should try to do is create a meeting, art, public gathering place," Tarr said. "Someplace where children and people get to see, do, and perform."

In early February, Williams said there also is land available near Kenai Central High School and Challenger Learning Center.

"It would be near our other learning facilities," he said.

Two theaters are included in Schwartz's vision of the building; a small theater for workshops and classes, and a larger one -- though not larger than the Kenai Central High School auditorium -- for performances.

"I'd also like it to have a lot of classroom space, which would really be labs for arts workshops," she said.

Schwartz said there was a pressing need for an arts center in the community and that the mayor was doing the right thing by forming an exploratory committee.

"If anyone is interested in this, now is the time to step forward and help shape the vision," she said.

Williams did not give a time line for soliciting names for the committee or for when he will make the appointments.

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