When Martha Martin started researching the potential for building a performing arts and cultural center on the Washougal waterfront, she discovered that was one of the area’s historical uses.
As Martin, a Washougal resident and psychologist with a downtown Washougal practice, learned, the area — called Catalpha Grove — was used for performing arts more than 100 years ago.
“In about 1878, a couple decided to build a saloon and a hotel, and then an outdoor destination entertainment area,” Martin told Port of Camas-Washougal commissioners at their Nov. 4 meeting. “People came here by the thousands to this waterfront site right behind us. They danced, played croquet, listened to a band, had sack races, trapeze performances, greased pig races. Somebody else already thought that this was a really good place to have events and music and celebration.”
Martin and Washougal City Councilwoman and Our Bar co-owner Alex Yost are co-chairs of a 14-member steering committee that has been investigating the feasibility of having a performing arts and cultural center on the waterfront since June.
The two women and several other committee members presented the first draft of the committee’s plan at the Nov. 4 meeting.
‘It’s a little scary to think about how the heck we’re going to do it,” Yost said. “We don’t want to shoot the moon with this. We want to do it right. We only have one opportunity with this beautiful, epic space, and we want to do a good job and do it right.”
Group wants center to have variety of uses
The committee has proposed that Port leaders locate the center in the southeast corner of the Waterfront at Parker’s Landing development, taking up between 2.5 and 4.5 acres with a 50,000-square-foot building that would include 1,200 seats, a main stage, wardrobe, offices, room for storage and loading/unloading, an orchestra pit, a fly tower, a rehearsal stage, a green room, a gallery or lobby, art display space, a concession area, restrooms, studios, a cafe and spaces for flexible uses.
Committee member Jason Ferrier said the building will be a “destination drawpoint” and an “anchor” for the 35-acre Parker’s Landing site, which is being developed by Portland-based YBA Architects and RKm Development.
“There’s lots of glass, lots of opportunities to interact and explore the green spaces,” Ferrier, an architectural project manager and designer, said. “There’s lots of openness and transparency and circulation space that allow us to preserve the views and the riverfront. We want something that’s going to express the heritage and the history of the area and the site, and we can do that through natural materials, landmarks and the artwork itself. We want to make sure that we maintain a serene and unique waterfront experience.”
The center’s studios, classrooms and open spaces will be available to be rented for a variety of activities, according to Yost, who suggested yoga classes, catered corporate events and weddings as possibilities.
“We’re looking for programming that is very much organic and of the community so that the center is functional all year round, and there’s not that feeling of, ‘When there’s not an event going on, there’s nothing going on there,'” she said. “It was really important to have the flexibility of the space, the diversity of the buildings, the opportunities for lots of different things to be happening at various times, so it’s not just at night during theater time that it feels like it’s alive.”
According to committee member Summer Taggard, an event manager, the ancillary spaces will be the “economic driver” of the center.
“You can keep those programmed probably all year long without even breathing hard,” she said. “They’ll keep the building alive, basically. We’re looking at trying to be able to maximize every revenue opportunity possible. You’re only really limited by your imagination, and you can pretty much capitalize on anything you can sell. (Even if you take) the 1,200 seats out, you can make it with that.”
Survey responses provide community perspectives
The committee recently sent out a survey that asked community members for their thoughts about the size and scope of the proposed center.
The results of the 15-question survey indicated that the respondents are mostly interested in plays and musicals, band concerts, orchestra or symphony performances and charity events in a facility of 700 or 1,200 seats.
“Over the last several weeks, we received roughly over 100 responses, which have helped us to validate many of the options that we’d already been working on,” said committee member Stuart Bennett. “No option was left unchecked, which really helps us understand that our performing arts and cultural center can truly be a universal venue.”
The most popular responses to the question, “What do you see as the benefits of a performing arts and cultural enter to our community?” were: supporting local artists, receiving cultural opportunities and providing a community place for residents.
“Our community wants this art center to support the local art community,” Bennett said. “We want this to be a creative place for residents and a way to focus on community pride. Everything that we expected from our group meetings was validated.”
Committee to search for funding sources
The viability of the committee’s proposal will be determined by whether its supporters can find a way to raise enough funds to either purchase the property outright from the Port or arrange a long-term lease; and build and operate the center.
Martin said the committee members will be looking into a variety of funding options, including a Washington Department of Commerce grant program that provides cities with up to $2 million for arts and culture development and construction.
“We’re not just going to throw a bond out there and ask people to pay for it. There’s a lot of different ways to slice this pie,” Yost said. “When we put forth our grant proposal, because of our location, we’re in a good position to be able to get that funding. For us, the biggest thing that we want to convey is, ‘We have the opportunity to put a destination tourism location (here), and you don’t necessarily have to pay for it.’ It’s like if you love waterparks and somebody put Wild Waves in your backyard. That’s what we’re going for.”
Martin and Yost said that while the center will have the potential to earn a profit, its success will be measured in other ways.
“Will it make money? No, at the beginning, probably the first two years, it will not,” Martin said. “It’s going to be probably programmed and run by a nonprofit, so it will be important for people to be able to afford to attend. But eventually, yes, it will (make money). With a 1,200-seat theater and national and international artists, absolutely it will. It’s also going to make money for the waterfront, for those other businesses around it. The retail spaces, restaurants, hotel, anything that goes there will be connected to that, and people will (go the performing arts and cultural center) and then stay and not go home right away. They will spend their dollars.”
Committee reaching out to different communities
The committee members have been talking with Manny Cawaling, the executive director of Seattle-based Inspire Washington, a nonprofit organization that increases public access to arts, heritage and science activities through advocacy, resource development, education and coalition building. Martin said Cawaling has agreed to speak to the Port commissioners at a future Port meeting.
The committee members also have been in touch with Renee Adams, executive director of the Arts Center Task Force, which is endeavoring to build a performing arts center in the Tri-Cities; and Chris Fidler, executive director of the Field Hall and Events Center, which is now under construction in Port Angeles, Washington.
“We’re going to also continue with our survey because we’re not done getting input,” Martin said. “We want to connect with local tribes. The local school districts — we are going to be reaching out more to them, as well as local businesses and organizations. We’ve already had conversations with the Vancouver Symphony. In the spring, we’ll be going to a symposium in Seattle where the people that have done this meet with the people that want to do this and learn how.”
Martin said the committee will develop a website and Facebook page, and form a nonprofit organization.
Yost told the commissioners the committee is looking at this as a 10-year process.
“Over the next one to three years, we’re going to get really, really good at telling our story in a concise, clear way so that it’s very clear what we’re trying to build, and through that we will gain support,” she said. “The next one to two years we’ll be developing and organizing a campaign. After we’re ready to put it out there, then there will be at least three years of fundraising and securing financing. And then, after that, we know it’s going to take at least three years for permitting and construction. We’re in it to win it, and we also know that this is going to take some time.”
Presentation receives positive feedback
Commissioners and community members were united in their praise of the committee’s plan, although Martin and Yost fielded a few skeptical questions about their plans for parking and their belief that a performing arts and cultural center is the best use of that particular piece of property.
Washougal resident Gary Simmons called it “one of the best presentations” he’s ever seen.
“It’s obvious that there’s been a lot of hard work and high-level thinking going into this. What (the committee has) put together has passed all expectations,” Port Commissioner Bill Ward said. “One thing that kind of shouts out to me is that there is an interest in making sure that it’s financially viable, and it seems like the key to that is making it multi-purpose as much as possible. That’s a way to get income that can support this and help us from a Port standpoint. The potential is huge.”
“I was, frankly, sold on the basic idea ahead of time,” said Port Commissioner John Spencer. “What I still want to know is, can it actually be done from a financing perspective? There are innumerable cases of the public supporting a performing arts center because the value isn’t in and of itself that venue. The value is everything it’s giving to the community. Would I like to see it cover itself? Absolutely. Would I object if a bond needs to be floated at some level, or if governments are helping to support it? I have no problem with that either.”
Arts is ‘niche that needs to be filled’
Martin said the state’s arts and culture industry, which is made up of more than 17,000 businesses and boasts more than 70,000 jobs, represents 7.8 percent of the Washington’s gross domestic product.
She also said there are 856 arts-related businesses in Clark County employing 2,767 people; 68 percent of tourism in the United States is driven by arts-oriented events and businesses; and that arts and culture travelers stay longer and spend more than average travelers.
“Creative industries play a major role in building and sustaining economically vibrant communities, providing jobs and generating government revenue, and are cornerstones of tourism and downtown revitalization,” Martin said. “I think the bullet point is how big this industry is. I don’t think anyone realizes that in our area we aren’t really filling that niche very well. There is no performing arts center and cultural center (in Southwest Washington) like the one we’re proposing. None. It’s a niche that needs to be filled because arts attract residents and other businesses, and I think that’s what we want to see.”
Yost said that, according to a 2017 study conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts, the indirect economic impact (money spent on things like babysitters, restaurants and parking) per arts and cultural event attendee is $32.
“We’re looking at our performance and cultural center having about 1,200 seats,” she said. “Times 32, that’s $38,400 invested right back into our local economy per performance. The average show runs for eight performances, so that’s $307,200.”
Yost said that, according to research conducted by the Washington D.C.-based Americans for the Arts organization, every $1 spent for after-school arts programs saves $9 in crime and welfare costs; and low-income students who are highly engaged in an arts program are two times more likely to graduate college, five times less likely to drop out of school and more likely to vote, and on average score 100 points higher on SAT exams.
“The arts have a huge impact on social cohesion,” Yost said. “They can bring various generations together, encourage partnerships and intercultural understanding and make people love where they live. (They provide) a sense of community pride that’s so crucial and important to getting people involved.”