A group hoping to build a performing arts and cultural center at the Washougal waterfront say they remain optimistic their vision will someday become a reality.
But Port of Camas-Washougal officials continue to question the financial viability of the project.
“At this time, the performing arts committee has not shown that a performing arts center on Port property would be financially feasible or a benefit,” Port Commissioner Larry Keister recently told the Post-Record.
Keister said he believes the group needs to conduct a feasibility study or at least have an offer to lease land currently marked for development.
Washougal residents Martha Martin, a member of the East County Fire and Rescue Board of Commissioners, and Alex Yost, a business owner and Washougal City Council member, formed a 14-member steering committee in 2019 to investigate the feasibility of placing the center on the waterfront.
During a November 2019 Port Commission meeting, Martin and Yost presented a proposal to develop the facility on the southeast corner of the Waterfront at Parker’s Landing development, taking up between 2.5 acres and 4.5 acres with a 50,000-square-foot building that would include 1,200 seats, a main stage, a rehearsal stage, orchestra pit, studios, a lobby and flexible-use spaces.
Martin pointed out that the venue would be unique to Southwest Washington and said the center would “bring the community together.”
“This is such a positive thing for our area – economically, psychologically, socially and culturally,” Martin said.
Since then, the committee has adopted a new name — Columbia River Arts and Cultural Foundation — applied for nonprofit status, launched a website (cracf.org) and started an email campaign.
“We’ve definitely kept the pace and kept the momentum,” Yost said. “(The pandemic) definitely set us back on our heels a little bit, so there was a lot of initial scrambling, but we kept meeting and we kept talking and kept the vision alive, and now we’re in a really good spot.”
Martin said that the Foundation is currently raising funds to hire a consultant to put together a feasibility study.
“We need to find somebody who’s well qualified to provide that document, because it is so crucial to us moving forward,” Yost said.
After the feasibility study is done, the Foundation hopes to draft a business plan, look into grant funding and pursue potential donors. Yost said the Foundation members estimate it would cost $50 million to construct the performing arts and cultural center.
Port ‘not in position to hold land for future vision’
On April 1, Port commissioners voted to table a motion to approve a memorandum of understanding agreement between the agency and Portland-based RKm Development after Martin and her husband, Richard Hamby, said members of the public weren’t given enough time to read the document. Hamby and Martin were concerned that agreement didn’t reserve space for the performing arts and cultural center.
“Certainly, I think that the people on the arts center committee were treated disingenuously by Port,” Hamby told the Post-Record. “Through that whole process, the Port totally forgot that the group wanted an opportunity to lease property. It’s not a death blow, but to have Port as the opponent is a tough thing for (the Columbia River Arts and Cultural Foundation).”
The agreement calls for the Port and RKm Development to work together to develop the waterfront property, but does not specify what might be located within the development, according to Keister, who added that that the commissioners “are not an opponent of (the Foundation’s) effort, but need to be assured the proposal would be a financial benefit to the Port and to the community.”
“Since the beginning of this project, when we advertised to developers, the Port has always promoted leasing the entire site,” Keister said. “The Port’s interest in the performing arts center vision and mission has not changed.”
Earlier this year, Martin, Yost and Port Commissioner John Spencer met with Kim to discuss the Foundation’s proposal and how it might align with the developer’s master plan.
“At that meeting, (Kim said) he likes the project, but cannot hold up the development for a portion of the site for a project that may be many years out from having its funding in order,” Keister said. “The Port is not in a position to hold land for a future vision.”
Martin said that if the project proceeds according to the Foundation’s timeline, construction could begin in about five years.
“That seems reasonable to everybody,” she said. “That is a very reasonable timeline. (Kim) said he was (receptive to our idea), and made it clear that he wanted to work with us. He wants it to align with his development, of course. He wants to understand our timeline and make sure we don’t drag this out forever, because that’s not productive for any of us.”
“It was a really good conversation,” Yost added. “(Kim) wants to see the numbers; he was clear about that. But I think our concepts really, really mesh well together, and I think he could see that in our presentation.”
David Ripp, the Port’s chief executive officer, said he believed the Foundation’s timeline may not line up with Kim’s development plans.
“(Kim’s) costs are spread out. He’s spending $50 million on infrastructure, and he wants to get his money back as soon as he can,” Ripp said. “He wants to develop and lease buildings to bring in revenue. I don’t know if he can wait for the (Foundation) to raise enough funds.”
Ripp said Kim had a similar experience in Beaverton, Oregon, where a smaller performing arts center, the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, cost $40 million and took 15 years to build despite the fact that the project had nearly $20 million in donations at the start of the project.
Martin said the Foundation wants to strengthen its relationship with the Port.
“We realize that’s our responsibility,” she said. “I think (the Port leaders) are still listening.”
Martin said Foundation members intend to keep attending Port meetings and talking with the commissioners and Ripp.
“I think we’re OK at this point, as long as we’re all communicating,” she said.