City aims to buy armory site for new performing arts center

Construction would cost $32 million and be divided between city and private donations

Posted: Friday, February 03, 2006

Juneau officials are negotiating to buy the downtown National Guard armory as a potential site for a performing arts center, former Mayor Sally Smith said.

Smith, a Performing Arts Center Commission member, said Juneau Lands Resource Manager Steve Gilbertson is in talks with Alaska Mental Health Trust, owner of the 2-acre parcel. It was last appraised at $2.1 million in 2003.

Smith said the armory purchase is the first step in the quest for a grand performing arts center she estimated would cost $32 million to build. It would take city and private funds to build.

"This development could realistically happen in the next five years if everything comes together, but more likely a decade," Smith said. "This project would enhance the community economically and is so vital to its identity and mental health."

Gilbertson confirmed he was asked by the Assembly Lands Committee to look into purchasing the armory site, located on Egan Drive just across from Centennial Hall. The property includes 100 parking spaces and green space that rests just five feet from Centennial Hall.

A few years ago the Alaska Mental Health Trust rejected the city's offer to trade land in Douglas, Lemon Creek and "out the road" for the armory site, Gilbertson said. A current independent appraisal is needed and should be done by March, he said.

"There will be money available now with the sale of (city) land to Home Depot and Lena Point lot sales," Gilbertson said. "My responsibility now is to look into this purchase for public use only. There is plenty of opportunity to make decisions about what to do with the site later."

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, former president of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, said he supports putting a new performing arts center at the armory site. He cautioned against relying entirely on city funding, though.

"The difficulty in building a performance center is that it competes against other projects in terms of funding," Botelho said. "Money will have to come from private donations, in addition to city funds."

Smith said the performing arts center has been in the city's comprehensive plans for 30 years. Arts organizations are currently competing for the high school as a resource and it is time for the funds from recent land deals to be freed for the project.

"There are so many events now that we are increasingly becoming an art-conscious community," Smith said. "High school events have priority now. Everyone else is bumped when they have an event."

At this point there has been no money dedicated to the performing arts center, Assembly member Merrill Sanford said. Although the goal is to tear down the armory and build a performance hall, the area may become a shared facility that includes a transit center, he said.

"At this early stage we do not want to eliminate any options," Sanford said.

Space is hard to come by, yet vital to an artist's success in Juneau, actor Patrick Moore said. Moore, an actor with Perseverance Theatre since 1985, said it is difficult to store sets, rehearse and perform with limited space.

"We are lucky to have Perseverance Theatre, but there are so many groups without space," Moore said. "Many of the artists are using churches and other small, random spaces to perform."

• Jason Steele can be contacted at jason.steele@juneauempire.com.



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