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Tour spotlights realities of building an arts center

Federal Way arts enthusiasts gathered Sept. 25 for a day-long excursion to three performing arts centers in the region.

The goal: Soak up knowledge on how to successfully build a performing arts center in Federal Way.

Experts in the business of operating and managing performing arts centers were able to offer advice, warnings and a reality check to the Federal Way group, which included City Manager Neal Beets, Recreation and Cultural Services superintendent Mary Faber, City Council member Jeanne Burbidge and representatives from the Federal Way Arts Commission.

Establishing a performing arts center in the city is possible, but will not come fast or easy, said Steve Lerian, Kirkland Performance Center executive director. The project will require community support, a solid business or feasibility plan, and substantial and ongoing fundraising, he said.

“If you think you can get this project together and built in a couple of years, you are sadly mistaken,” Lerian said.

Public support

The first step in creating a successful performing arts center is winning over the hearts and minds of the public.

Public support of the venue is essential and people must be allowed to imagine what the center could offer in terms of programming, Lerian said. Without this support, performing arts center seats will remain empty and the center will sink, he said.

“A lot of projects skip step one, and those are often doomed to failure,” Lerian said.

From start to finish, it took a decade to complete the Kirkland Performance Center, but Kirkland residents were aware of the project and eager for its completion, he said.

“(The 10-year process) was fingernails on the blackboard painful, but that was ultimately the reason this project has been successful,” Lerian said.

Planning process

Regardless of public support, a performing arts center cannot be successful without a comprehensive business plan or feasibility study.

A business plan or feasibility study should evaluate the needs of a center’s future customers, Lerian said. Individual Federal Way arts enthusiasts are vying to see a performing arts center able to serve the Federal Way Symphony, Federal Way Chorale, Centerstage Theatre Arts Conservatory and other dance, theater, spoken word and musical performances.

But as of yet, the public has not had the opportunity to weigh in on the subject.

“Rather than make the assumption of what you would like to see (offered at the performing arts center), poll the community,” Lerian said.

Federal Way is currently preparing to conduct a feasibility study. It may help in determining if a performing arts center in Federal Way will need to appeal to a niche market, or if its success will be found in its mass appeal, Lerian said.

The contractors performing the study will seek public input as well as feedback from local performing arts groups. The study is a step in the right direction and may reveal some surprises, Lerian said.

“The biggest thing that I left with is that each facility has to be carefully planned according to its own community and there isn’t really a solution that applies to every community,” Faber said.

Through the feasibility study, the city will be able to determine what funding, management and operational model, or combination of models, will work in Federal Way, she said. From Faber’s viewpoint, a facility similar to the Edmonds Center for the Arts may be viable in Federal Way.

The Edmonds Center for the Arts is the product of a comprehensive business plan. Edmonds originally wanted to see a convention center built, but a study revealed a performing arts center would be a better fit, said Joe Mclalwain, Edmonds Center for the Arts executive director.

The center resides in an old Christian school building, constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. The cost to purchase and convert the school into a performing arts center was approximately $18 million, with $11.5 million applied to construction costs, Mclalwain said.

Though the center is still new — it launched into its first full season Wednesday, Sept. 26 — versatility and resourcefulness are underlying themes in its progress thus far. Old classrooms are used as dressing or rehearsal spaces.

The center fills a niche by renting its gymnasium — a well sought after amenity in Edmonds. The building is full of nooks and crannies, providing ample room for storing performance equipment and materials.

“We’re using these spaces in new and different ways,” said Jeff Vaughan, Edmonds Center for the Arts technical director.

Establishing partnerships

Being resourceful may save on some operational costs, but in many cases, partnerships are also needed to financially sustain a performing arts center.

A performance venue that is able to sustain itself through its own operations is nearly non-existent, Lerian said.

The Everett Performing Arts Center was originally built by the city, which found the facility a challenge to sustain financially. Its solution was to seek the assistance of Village Theatre, a private theater group that now schedules programming and markets the theater, said Bill McCoubrey, Village Theatre technical director.

The city owns and maintains the building at no charge to Village Theatre with the understanding that the facility can be used by the city at its will. Requests by the city for theater use can be hard to accommodate, but without the city’s help, Village Theatre would be forced to perform management and maintenance duties, likely resulting in a financial strain, McCoubrey said.

Partnerships, whether they be with the City of Federal Way, Federal Way Public Schools or other organizations, could prove essential in making a performing arts center a reality in Federal Way.

Federal Way Public Schools does not have the money to pay for ongoing operations, but has considered offering a site for a performing arts center, assuming the center can be sustained and prove equitable to Federal Way’s schools, school board member Dave Larson said.

“What the school board has to offer is the possibility of surplus land,” Larson said.

Funding an arts center

In Edmonds, Everett and Kirkland, the group was reminded that a performing arts center will never be a lucrative business. Financial struggles will always be nearby, especially within the first few years, Mclalwain said. Annual fundraising is essential.

Village Theatre’s operating budget is $6.5 million; 80 percent of the annual operating budget comes from ticket sales and fees associated with attending the theater, but 20 percent of the budget comes from contributions to the theater, according to the Village Theatre Web site, www.villagetheatre.org. The theater offers subscriber benefits, including optimal seating and discounts at other Everett businesses.

The Kirkland Performance Center’s annual operating budget is nearly $1.5 million. Of this, the city contributes $100,000 annually, which includes an admissions tax of about $35,000 and lodging tax dollars, Lerian said. The center conducts annual fundraisers to account for the difference in earned income and outgoing expenses.

For example, sponsors of performances pay to have their name or business associated with the act. They get to meet the artists. The Kirkland Performance Center raises between $550,000 and $600,000 annually to keep itself afloat, Lerian said.

Federal Way’s key to success is figuring out how to create and intertwine public support, partnerships and fundraising to offer the best product possible. The project can be accomplished, but it is going to be a struggle.

“It’s about providing a community service and getting people in the door,” Vaughan said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565

The City of Federal Way has hired Johnson Consulting to conduct a performing arts center feasibility study. To learn more about the group, visit its Web site at www.chj.com.

The study is expected to cost between $50,000 and $80,000.

The city has collected $50,000 over the past three years, with initial plans to apply the money toward an updated Federal Way Arts Commission plan, councilman Jim Ferrell said. An additional $30,000 has been reallocated from the city’s 2006 budget for an improved business plan for the Knutzen Family Theatre, he said.

With the exception of providing money for the study, the city has not officially taken on responsibilities for advocating for a performing arts center in Federal Way.

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