The downtown performing arts center faces a pivotal six-month stretch. Can planners turn a grand vision into reality?

A new dream has taken root in Missoula’s old dump. And the potential for a performing arts center that could both sate and spur the burgeoning cultural scene in Missoula is slowly but surely emerging on the corner of Orange and Front streets at the Riverfront Triangle.

The elements for an astounding downtown anchor that would elevate Missoula’s role as a regional destination are there—a prime, empty chunk of downtown; a proven need for new performing spaces; a group of locals working to unite the two—and now it’s just a question of their chemistry.

The chemistry, not surprisingly, is complicated. Beyond obvious issues like the hefty cost of the project—estimated at $60 million—lie other challenges, such as timing and coordinating a private-public undertaking that would mark Missoula’s largest and most high-profile construction endeavor to date. Some are very up front in their estimations that it has no chance of success: “To me, it’s a house of cards,” City Council’s Jerry Ballas said recently before casting his vote opposing city support for the project.

But the vision is there, and many of Missoula’s and Montana’s most influential and involved personalities are lining up behind the effort. Mayor John Engen and Gov. Brian Schweitzer have conveyed their support, as have leaders in Missoula’s arts scene. Most recently, Missoula’s City Council agreed—over dissenting votes from Ballas and Jon Wilkins—to extend for another six months the land reservation the city granted to the Missoula Community Performing Arts Center (MCPAC) in 2004. The new reservation, though, comes with a number of conditions that must be met by August’s end for the city to again consider prolonging its commitment to the project.

Those conditions are major hurdles, and these next six months—including a public outreach campaign by Executive Director Amy Rue to drum up support—are make or break for an effort that the MCPAC board of directors has been at since 2003.

“In six months, we’re going to know whether we’ve got a shot at this or not,” says Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA), which has helped shepherd the project.

If it’s successful, Buchanan believes a performing arts center in downtown Missoula could transform the community by providing a cultural destination for locals and visitors alike and by spurring economic development in the area.

The history of the Riverfront Triangle alone demonstrates how remarkable such a turnaround would be: Until the 1930s, the site was Missoula’s primary dumping destination. Chris Behan, assistant director of the MRA, says the dump bordered the shady part of town, dominated by bars and houses of prostitution found on Front Street, and was set ablaze occasionally to reduce the trash and kill the rats. In the 1950s, the Fox Theater Corporation built a 1,000-seat theater on the site and 30 years later donated the land and building, which was later torn down, to the city. Even then, Behan says, the city envisioned turning the site into a performing arts center.

Redeveloping a downtown corner with a disreputable past into a city center isn’t the only transformation an arts center would bring. Others point to the larger impacts such a center could have on Missoula’s future.

“I think Missoula is on the cusp of becoming the cultural mecca of the Northern Rockies,” local Kent Watson urged the City Council when it weighed extending the land reservation in late February. “Think of all that we can be as a city, and let’s do this for our children and our grandchildren.”

These next six months, then, won’t just determine whether MCPAC’s board can gather enough justification to convince the city to continue its support for the fledgling effort. It will also determine whether an effort that could transform Missoula will put down more roots and start growing toward reality or wither on the vine.

The grand vision

Missoula needs a performing arts center. Ask the people involved with the effort to build one on the Riverfront Triangle for the number one reason they’re trying to do it, and that’s their answer.

“There’s need in a lot of circles,” says Jim Valeo, president of the MCPAC board of directors, the civic group at the forefront of the effort to build a performing arts center. “There’s need in the performing arts groups that are around town and…the specific needs in the Missoula school system—the single largest need—probably in total almost as great as everything put together.”

Paul Ritter, fine arts supervisor for Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) and also a MCPAC board member, concurs: “We just don’t have the facilities in the public schools and we have a very vibrant performing arts department, not just in music but also in drama.”

From the perspective of the performing arts groups in town, the most important thing about the proposed MCPAC is not the number of seats but the size of the stage and its load-in capabilities. This is what lacks in the University and the Wilma theaters, the only two facilities with a comparable capacity.

The MCPAC board spent approximately two years assessing Missoula’s venue needs, which culminated in the group funding the design of a 92,000-square foot center they now aim to build on the Riverfront Triangle site. Drafting the design was a team from Seattle’s LMN Architects led by Mark Reddington, an architect noted for his work on performing arts centers and whose credits include Seattle’s Benaroya Hall—a facility recognized for its integration into the cityscape and superb acoustic features.

LMN’s design includes a 1,600-seat hall featuring two balconies and a stage with a 55-foot proscenium arch, almost twice as wide as anything else in Missoula. In addition, the concert hall includes a hydraulic orchestra pit, which can be sunk below stage level for opera and musical theater or raised to bring the audience closer for dance and symphony performances. Seating in the main hall can be easily tailored to crowds of a smaller size by closing the balconies and wings of the seating areas.

Although the price tag is estimated at $60 million—including a $10 million endowment for operations—the proposed MCPAC has been cost-conscious. Specifically, the concert hall focuses the décor on the performance area, creating a sumptuous view of the stage from the audience’s perspective but leaving the hall itself relatively unadorned.

“Are you going make it a Cadillac or a Yugo?” asks Ritter, referring to the board’s thought process on the design. “We’re going to go somewhere in between there and probably settle for a Buick.”

The center aims to be more than just a concert hall, however, and the spaces within the building are designed to accommodate other uses. For instance, it boasts a three-level lobby with enough space to accommodate large receptions. Furthermore, two double-height basement rehearsal rooms could also serve as black-box theaters, able to accommodate smaller dance and theatrical productions from both the local area and touring troupes. Finally, a covered terrace along the river could constitute a third auxiliary venue distinct from the lobby and the main house itself.

The MCPAC’s site design also contemplates both retail and commercial uses, although the projects themselves are not part of the project currently being proposed by the board. The spots, which are being reserved for private development, include a street-level space along Front Street suitable for stores that can capitalize on the center’s location and mission as a magnet for people with an interest in culture and disposable income. Space for a hotel has also been included in the plan, a nod to the hope that events staged there will attract significant numbers of out-of-town visitors.

The proposed MCPAC, says Ritter, is an opportunity for Missoula to capture the attendance of die-hard cultural tourists who now travel out of state.

“Would you rather drive from Great Falls to Missoula or Great Falls to Spokane?” asks Ritter. “Because a lot of people I know in Great Falls go to Spokane to see shows that we can’t have because we don’t have the place. We’d like to see that money stay here.”

The vision for MCPAC is more than just a building for the arts, though. Beyond that, proponents say there are both economic and cultural reasons to favor the construction of a performing arts center at the corner of Orange and Front streets. A nonprofit cultural entity transforms the area around it, drawing businesses that want to associate with and can benefit from the traffic generated by a bustling venue. The Riverfront Triangle, in particular, is a site ripe for transformation, situated at the edge of a downtown revitalized over the last three decades and along a river whose importance to city life is only growing. A performing arts center, say its proponents, is just the thing to anchor the area.

“Remember we’re only using an acre and a half out of 10 acres,” says Ritter. “Because of the large development that’s contemplated around it, the economic impact of this facility is very substantial—if it’s in this location—on the whole downtown and therefore in the whole Missoula community.”

A performing arts center downtown, says MRA’s Buchanan, would boost the quality of development for years to come.

“If the performing arts center happens, I strongly believe that it will just elevate the level of development that will happen on the rest of [the Riverfront Triangle],” Buchanan says. “I mean, what an anchor! It’s like having Saks Fifth Avenue come in and say we’re going to anchor your shopping center.”

There are also intangible benefits for the wider Missoula community. Where Orange Street crosses the Clark Fork River is a key junction, the sort of location with the potential to define the city and its surroundings. Pointing to the recently constructed skatepark and aquatics facility just across the river in McCormick Park, as well as established community institutions like St. Patrick Hospital, Ritter says, “What you’re creating down here is a tremendous synergy of different kinds of facilities and different interest areas that really allow for this to become one of the activity cores of the community—not just artistic, but all different kinds of people will be going down here.”

The proposed design of the facility speaks to the intended inclusiveness and community-minded aspect of the center. The glassed-in lobby offers views of downtown, the river and the mountains ringing the valley, including Lolo Peak to the south. The roof of the center pitches toward downtown, orienting the building upriver and toward the existing urban core. Alongside the river, a covered porch and large landscaped lawn offer a site suitable for outdoor concerts and other community events.

The openness of the design and the ambition of its architecture is part of what proponents are selling.

“One of the things the [MCPAC] board has said from the beginning,” says Ritter, “is that they want to put something into this community that is really architecturally significant…not a scaled-back box.” Whatever gets built on the site for which the performing arts center is proposed, says Ritter, will be “a huge part of the design that we encounter in our lives every day.”

Building a performing arts center will not only fill a cultural need and ensure the economic future of an underdeveloped part of downtown, but proponents also believe it cements Missoula’s collective identity as a place prioritizing culture and community life. It’s a lot to expect a building to do, but then there’s more to the effort than just concrete and steel. If Missoula pulls off the performing arts center’s construction, the benefits will be measured over generations, in the expectations and experiences of people who will never remember when the corner of Front and Orange streets was nothing more than a hole in the ground.

Impending deadlines

The MCPAC board’s vision will bump against reality’s constraints in a major way at summer’s end, when its six-month land reservation at the Riverfront Triangle draws to a close.

By Aug. 31, the MCPAC board must report back to the MRA on four performance measures Council established, and then the MRA will craft a recommendation advising City Council, which has the final say, whether to continue its support for this project or cut it loose.

The four requirements established are:

—to update a feasibility study and business plan already prepared for the center that demonstrate the project’s soundness;

—to submit a professional philanthropic study that finds there’s enough private fund-raising capacity to pay for two-thirds of the project’s estimated $60 million cost;

—to present a general financing plan with proposed funding sources and timetables;

—to present a plan for replacing project financing once proposed to come from school bonds, since legislation to allow that possibility didn’t survive the Legislature.

The update to findings already drawn up by consultants will be relatively simple, but the other requirements are more significant and will give City Council a better understanding of the Center’s financial feasibility. Council members have made clear that unless the MCPAC board can demonstrate convincing private support through a funding plan with sources, council not interested in holding out hope that it will materialize down the road.

“I think it’s showtime,” says Ward 1 Council Representative Dave Strohmaier. “And there can be no taking for granted the importance of this next six months. I think the Council has demonstrated that we need to see some tangible results in terms of a plan for financing and funding this thing.”

The biggest piece of that plan is a professional philanthropic study that will demonstrate private capabilities and interest in funding the center.

Executive Director Rue says the MCPAC board is in the process of hiring a consultant to conduct the study, which consists of confidential interviews with potential major donors who receive all the details about the center and then indicate whether and how much they might commit to the project. While such a study won’t secure actual funds for the performing arts center, it will establish for the MCPAC board and city officials how much private funding can be anticipated.

Buchanan hopes the study’s results are telling one way or another.

“The hard thing would be if the fund-raising study comes back and it’s right there on the edge,” she says. “Then what do you do? Do you say, ‘Well, let’s give this another couple of years and see if we can pull it off’ or do you pull the plug on it? I hope it’s definitive one way or the other, because it’s going to be agonizing if it comes back and says you can raise $30 million privately and with grants, but where’s the other $30 [million] going to come from?”

Valeo and others on the MCPAC board say they know the capacity to raise private funds for a performing arts center exists, and they believe donors will be convinced to support such a center in Missoula. Now they’re hoping—expecting, actually—the philanthropic study will affirm those beliefs.

“We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if we didn’t think there was a reasonable prospect that we could get this thing done,” Valeo says simply.

A demonstrable ability to raise private dollars is more important to the center’s continued viability than ever, since any speculative involvement on the part of Missoula schools remains just that. The MCPAC’s use plan estimates that local schools would use the center about 40 times a year for their performances. Besides being a significant user of the center, the MCPAC board has suggested in its plans that up to one-third of the project could be funded through the public schools’ bonding capacity. That idea, though, relies on a change in state law that would allow school districts to use their voter-approved taxing ability for projects the district doesn’t own outright. MCPS Superintendent Jim Clark says that if the performing arts center garnered enough community support down the road, and required laws were in place, he would consider bringing the request for funding from the schools to the Board of Trustees.

Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, drafted a bill this legislative session that would have made the required legal changes, but pulled it at the last minute due to questions of such legislation’s impact across the state.

Wanzenried—and the MCPAC board—hope the legislation can succeed at the 2009 legislative session, once communities consider and understand the ways it could help schools partner with them to construct much-needed facilities like libraries, gyms and performing arts centers. But while MCPAC still holds out hope for such legislation—and still plans to include Missoula’s public schools as significant users of the center—board members say they’re working to find a way to replace up to $20 million in funding that the school’s bonding capacity could bring.

Valeo says it’s too early to talk about ideas for replacing that chunk, but offered some hints.

“There’s a possibility it could be done completely in the private sector—and the philanthropic study will help us answer that question—but in the meantime we are exploring other alternatives in regard to that chunk of the capital.”

Besides the schools, public funding could theoretically come in the form of a city or county bond, although both entities expect to be tapped for more pressing projects. The city, for instance, is working toward a new police headquarters building to relieve department overcrowding, while county officials need more space to house administrative services.

The alternatives Valeo mentions are particularly critical because of City Council’s requirement to present a plan for replacing the schools’ funding piece, and members say waiting for the 2009 session to come around does not constitute a plan.

“At this point, factoring in any speculative possibility of what the next legislative session will do is a nonstarter—I don’t think the Council will take kindly to that whatsoever,” Strohmaier says. “What we need to see six months from now is a fund-raising proposal that is independent of anything the legislature may or may not do relative to school bonding.”

Regardless of what other options the MCPAC board may be exploring to replace potential school bond funding, the results of the philanthropic study will be a major indicator of the center’s future.

If its outcome is positive, Council has indicated it will continue its support.

“If you can convince us, we can give you more time,” Council President Ed Childers told MCPAC board members before the vote to approve a six-month land reservation.

If not, and if Council votes to squash the center’s chances at the Riverfront Triangle, the MCPAC board doesn’t intend to just let the effort die but it would mark a substantial setback. The board, obviously, hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“While we have the reservation of land secured, we’re going to put all of our energy and effort into making sure this facility ends up on that property,” Rue says.

Comparative shopping

There’s been one question many have asked regarding the proposed $60 million MCPAC: Why not simply buy the Wilma and renovate it instead?

On the surface, there’s a compelling argument for the idea. The Wilma, built in 1921, is a Missoula landmark and by far the sentimental favorite among the local theaters. In addition to screening movies 350 evenings of the year, the main theater hosts approximately 72 concerts or special events each year. Major local festivals, such as the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Festival of the Book and First Night Missoula, utilize the facility as well, totaling more than 100 performance days annually.

The Wilma is also available: It’s been for sale for five years. The challenge has been finding a suitor willing to not only inherit an aging entertainment facility in need of, at some point, another major renovation, but also an apartment and office building; the Wilma is home to five floors of apartments and three floors of offices. The building’s owner, Missoula native and current Portland businessman Tracy Blakeslee, has listed the price at $4.25 million.

“You’d have to have some upgrading and some TLC, but wow, what an opportunity for a beautiful, nostalgic theater experience,” says Realtor Bill McQuirk, who says the Wilma generates more out-of-town interest than any other commercial property he lists. “To have that facility, with a full-service restaurant—and [liquor] license, which runs $750,000—in the basement, the theater and the apartment spaces, you’re talking about something with a lot of potential.”

An argument could be made that the $4.25 million purchase price leaves a substantial amount of money under MCPAC’s current fund-raising goal to tap into the Wilma’s potential, and recast it as an entirely new, updated facility, while also retaining a Missoula landmark. The MCPAC board could, if they were interested, be branded saviors.

“What’s the movie called, The Money Pit?” asks board member Ritter. “That’s what we’re looking at with the Wilma.”

“The facts are the Wilma is a great example of what it was, and that’s what I would say—a glorious art deco silent movie theater,” says board member Valeo. “I would love to see it be restored in that regard, but it doesn’t answer the need of what we’re talking about.”

On paper the Wilma may sound like an enticing prospect, but in actuality it possesses obstacles the board deems insurmountable. The list of problems includes a 35-foot proscenium arch, which would limit the types of performances that could be held; a small lobby area that the board says cannot be expanded because of the design of the building (by comparison the proposed MCPAC’s lobby is 60 percent of the square footage of the auditorium space, the Wilma 10 percent); house seating that is currently 40 percent smaller than the MCPAC’s proposed 1,600 seats; and wholesale changes would require, according to Ritter, “a stick of dynamite because it is solid concrete.”

The board explored the Wilma option with the assistance of a New York City architect who reinforced that it was not a smart decision.

“We should set the record straight about the Wilma without being negative,” says Rue. “There’s the breakout space, the physical restraints, the lobby, the proscenium arch…”

Says Valeo: “It was never designed to be what we’re envisioning—which is a symphony hall or a performing arts center.”

The problems with the Wilma illustrate a lot of similar obstacles with other current Missoula facilities. The board acknowledges the public may not immediately understand the difference between the Wilma and MCPAC’s proposal because a lot of the issues have to do with technical limitations.

“There are opportunities we just pass on,” says Valeo in regards to current local facilities. “And there are opportunities. One of the great arguments that gets made is we are on I-90 and we are the major route between Minneapolis, which has a multimillion population, and Seattle, which similarly has a multimillion population, and a lot of things move along I-90 and drive right by us.”

For example, the University Theatre on the University of Montana campus was built in 1933 and its stage is not big enough for a full orchestra and chorus. Currently the Missoula Symphony holds 10 concerts there a year, but has been limited in the scope of its productions.

“We really can’t fit an entire 80-piece orchestra on the stage at the University Theatre without some of the people being behind the proscenium, where you can’t see them depending on where you’re seated,” says Valeo, who is also president of the Symphony board. “And of course that means you can’t hear them either if you can’t see them.”

Another major factor in comparing the proposed MCPAC is cost and access to Missoula County public schools. The current school facilities are insufficient for a variety of reasons—Sentinel High School is in need of some repair, only seats 225 and has a small stage; Hellgate, which was recently renovated, seats only 585; and Big Sky uses its cafeteria, or “cafetorium.” When bigger events are required, the public schools currently rent out area venues, such as the University Theatre, which is expensive. The MCPAC would be available to schools—regardless of MCPS’s pending funding commitment..

“We have the worst performance facilities in the state,” says Ritter. “I think we’ve established that there is a need.”

If the proposed MCPAC is built, Missoula will join a host of other Montana communities that have already succeeded in establishing regional performing arts centers. Helena’s Myrna Loy Center originated as the Helena Film Society in 1976 showing alternative films to the community from a second floor downtown building. Fifteen years later, the 250-seat Myrna Loy Center opened with an additional 50-seat screening room.

Great Falls’ Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts is a renovated 1,785-seat theater originally built in the 1930s. Located in the city’s civic center, the building is also home to the Mansfield Convention Center and government offices. The Alberta Blair Theater in Billings was also built in the 1930s and renovated in 1987 at a cost of $5.2 million. The 1,416-seat theater now hosts the Billings Symphony, as well as national and international touring productions.

In Western Montana, Kalispell has been working for six years to build the Glacier Performing Arts Center (GPAC) on land donated just north of the Kalispell Center Mall. Also designed by LMN, the proposed 1,300-seat theater is currently in the early stages of capital and endowment campaigns. So far GPAC has raised $4.6 million from lead donors toward an estimated $26 million goal; when the fund-raising reaches a 60 percent threshold, the campaign will look for support from the general public, including full-time and seasonal residents. GPAC Board President Jean Hagan says the board originally hoped for a more expensive facility, but scaled back to the current $26 million proposal.

“That’s what we thought we could achieve and still satisfy the need in the community,” says Hagan, who adds the board is currently updating and refining its architectural drawings. “We know we may need to phase in certain parts of the project—like the black box theater—in the future.”

Whitefish’s I.A. O’Shaughnessy Center, home of the Whitefish Theatre Company and other local arts organizations, was built in 1998. It seats 300 and was funded by community donors and a sizable grant from the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation.

The center currently used by most Missoulians, however, is the 700-seat Hamilton PAC adjoined to the new Hamilton High School. It was built on school property in 2000 and therefore funded in part through a school bond, similar to what the MCPAC board had originally proposed. The Hamilton facility currently hosts national and international performances, many of which travel to the Bitterroot and skip stops in Missoula. In the past year, the schedule’s included Montreal-based Theatre Sans Fil’s Hansel and Gretel and acclaimed African vocalists Ladysmith Black Mambazo. According to Valeo, those are exactly the sorts of performances the MCPAC’s Presenting Series would bring to Missoula.

“The things we can attract here because of this facility will be amazing,” says Valeo. “And I think the creative juices of this community, which have never been on the low side, are just going to flourish.”

Part of what’s allowed Missoula to go this long without a performing arts center is what’s also made Missoula a cultural center of Montana. With facilities at UM, the Wilma, the new Missoula Children’s Theatre and other since-closed venues serving the community throughout history, Missoula’s arts scene has always been able to work with what’s already available to stage world-class performances. But according to the MCPAC board, as Missoula has grown, it has surpassed those facilities’ capabilities.

“If this doesn’t happen, the need doesn’t change,” says Ritter. “That this community needs this center and the school district needs something wouldn’t change…Right now, we don’t have the facilities to meet demand.”

A matter of time

Community leaders and the MCPAC board agree that the question of whether a performing arts center will crown Missoula’s cultural scene isn’t a matter of if, but when. The need and interest are there, as is an ideal location and a dedicated contingent of supporters, but whether all three elements can coalesce at this particular point remains to be seen.

“The biggest challenge this city will face in decades is being able to pull the performing arts center off, and we’re going to know [whether we can do that] at the end of summer,” Buchanan says.

If Missoula can’t pull it off now—if the private financing and political will don’t both materialize—Buchanan predicts it would be some time before this town has another shot.

“I really believe that any community only has certain windows of opportunity to try to go after these sorts of things, and if we’re not successful with this one, it will be a decade or two before someone tries it again,” she says. “This is a group of citizens who’ve spent the last four years trying to pull this thing together, and if this fails, it will be a while before another group of citizens steps up and says, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’”

Council’s Strohmaier hopes for the sake of Missoula’s cultural and economic future that the MCPAC board can bridge the gap between reality and their vision for a performing arts center in Missoula. He recognizes that it’s not just the MCPAC board, but Council and the community at large who must get behind the project if it is to succeed. And while public officials have a responsibility to balance the city’s books and not commit the city to fiscally dangerous projects—Missoula’s recent experience with a ballooning budget for the public aquatics parks has freshened the attention Council members pay to proposed projects—he also says there’s a twin responsibility to enrich Missoula with possibilities for the future.

“I think far too often we underestimate the economic benefits associated with arts and culture, not to mention the community benefits of it,” Strohmaier says. “I think what it means to live in a community and collectively shape our lives in this place has every bit as much to do with art and culture as it does with the bottom line.”

By summer’s end, Missoula will know much more about both the bottom line and the equally important but less tangible benefits the performing arts center would bring to town. Council—and the citizens it represents—will then face a choice between cultivating the vision further or backing off. There are a lot of ifs between now and then. But if Missoula can transform its old dump into a downtown anchor, and if Missoula can replace it with a cultural center where an arts-hungry town draws its sustenance, then it will surely be a sight to see.
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