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From parking lot to performing arts center

Posted: June 20, 2012 - 11:02pm
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Descriptions of Juneau — from tour-book synopses to informal conversations — nearly always include some version of the phrase “vibrant arts community.” And those of us who live here know this is not an idle boast. With only 30,000 people, we have a symphony, two theater companies, two opera companies, two dance studios, multiple Alaska Native arts events, music festivals and on it goes.

Those who are backing the construction of a formal performing arts center in downtown Juneau believe that a facility dedicated specifically to the arts would encourage this rich local resource to flourish in new directions, improving the health of our community in many ways -- from stimulating our economy to giving our young people more reasons to stay here to enriching residents and visitors on an individual level.

Juneau Arts & Humanities Council executive director Nancy DeCherney is one of those voicing strong support for the project. As director of the JAHC and a passionate patron of the arts, DeCherney looks at the issue from both sides of the stage – as a event planner and as an audience member. She says it’s an idea whose time has come.

“I’ve lived here since 1975 and a performing arts center was on the radar at that time,” she said. “But it’s not happened.”

DeCherney said the new facility would acknowledge our current strengths in the arts while helping to pave the way for new opportunities within the community and from outside sources.

“I would hope that the biggest reason is that we want to make the statement that the arts are something really important in our lives and it’s something that Juneau has that we should be capitalizing on. It’s like a little gold mine. And it’s renewable.”

The JACC-PACC (Juneau Arts & Culture Center-Performing Arts & Culture Center), as it is informally being called, is one element of a larger vision to create a cultural hub in the Willoughby district, extending from Centennial Hall over to the proposed State Library Archives Museum building. The area would also include a park and multiple pedestrian walkways, creating continuity between buildings and boosting the aesthetic value of an area that’s now broken up by multiple parking lots.

“It could be a really beautiful location for downtown, to have this as a greenbelt,” DeCherney said. ”It would allow for Centennial Hall, the performing arts center and JACC, and the museum to all be sort of a big unit that could be used for lots of things.”

Unlike previous plans, the JACC-PACC draft plan calls for an expansion of the current JACC, rather than an entirely new building. This decision was made after the most recent outside assessment that placed new building costs at $44 million. The expansion would cut that price down to a little more than $14 million. The new draft plan also takes into account the popularity and success of the current JACC, a “sturdy little” facility that is currently booked 80 percent of the year.

Funding for the project would come from CBJ sales tax (5 million), a legislative grant (5 million), foundation donations (1.5 million), business donations (2 million) and individual contributions (1 million). There are a handful of other projects competing for funds generated by sales tax revenue, a special 1 percent tax expected to raise $44.8 million over five years -- including a new library in the Valley, Sealaska Heritage Institute’s planned Walter Soboleff Center, a Child Adolescent Mental Health Unit at Bartlett Hospital, and upgrades to Aurora Harbor, among other projects -- but multiple projects could be funded through the tax. DeCherney says for her it comes down to priorities.

“The library is exciting and docks and harbors are important – all of these things are important community assets, so it’s a question of setting some priorities. I’ve set the arts as one of the big priorities for the community.”

The expansion, drawn up by MRV Architects, would include a total of 19,000 sq. ft., of which 10,000 would be devoted to two medium-sized theaters (240 and 360 seats); 4,000 sq ft for classroom, gallery meeting rooms and offices; 4,000 sq. ft. for lobby restrooms and support; and 1,000 sq. ft. of renovated space in the JACC.

The decision to plan for two mid-size theaters rather than one large one was based on feedback from local arts groups, who voiced a a desire for more flexibility.

The new facility would also continue to provide supplementary venues for larger Centennial Hall events, as the JACC does now, while potentially attracting bigger groups.

“This would allow Centennial Hall — with what we’re conceiving — to go out and look for bigger conferences and different things,” DeCherney said.

Centennial Hall itself is not well-suited to many types of performance, she said, especially those that depend on high-quality acoustics and a real stage. The high schools both offer performance spaces in their auditoriums but securing those stages for events is more difficult than most realize. First priority goes to the schools, with other arts groups filling in around them.

“I still don’t have my dates for my coming season, and I don’t think anybody else has,” DeCherney said, referring to the JAHC’s annual concert series. “I spend a great deal of time, as do all the other arts organizations, fretting over where are we going to perform and trying to get performance space.”

Churches and parish halls, such as the newly renovated McPhetres Hall, also provide options for performers. McPhetres, which holds about 70 people, is one of the smaller spaces, while the JDHS auditorium, which holds about 900, is at the opposite end of the scale.

DeCherney said the new building would do more than offer more venues for local performers, it could also attract visitors and outside performers, and build Juneau’s reputation as an eminently “livable” and arts-minded city.

“I would like to imagine that this project would benefit the community from an economic standpoint,” she said. “It’s not just about putting on more plays, it’s about trying to make Juneau an attractive destination.”

The site where the expansion would go is currently devoted to parking, and DeCherney acknowledged that parking is already a problem in the area. However, she does not think the current layout — which involves people weaving through the lot to get to the JACC — is the best situation.

“The parking in this whole neighborhood needs to be fixed,” she said. “I think the parking lot as it exists now is dangerous, both to park in and to walk in. So I think it would be a good idea if we, as a community, came up with a better plan.”

One option is the current State Office Building parking garage, which is open to evening parkers and may soon need an upgrade.

A monthly meeting has been set up to encourage public participation and input in the planning process for the proposed performing arts center, held the first Tuesday of every month at the JACC at noon. Meeting-averse locals also have the option of going online to jahc.org and weighing in that way, or simply calling the JAHC to give their input.

DeCherney stressed that the plan is still in draft form, and that the proposed facility would be at least five years down the road.

In the meantime, she is hopeful that people will embrace the project and the potential for growth it represents for Juneau.

“It seems odd now, but five years ago when we opened up the JACC – and it hasn’t even been five years yet – it was scary. (We thought) ‘what are we going to do here?’ And it’s amazing to me what has happened.”

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