Committee to Study Development of Civic Center or Arts Venue

By Beacon Staff

The long-proposed idea of building some type of performing arts or civic center in Kalispell has been largely dormant since the economic downturn quashed any ambitious construction plans requiring fundraising.

But the idea itself persists, prompting Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher to host a “conference facility scoping session” last week at City Hall to gauge interest.

“We need to determine if it’s something viable for this community,” Fisher said. “And if it’s not, then we need to move on.”

Fisher was clear that she has not made up her mind on supporting a civic center or performing arts venue, and even if the idea does enjoy community support, that the city of Kalispell is in no position to undertake the financing for a project of that scale. The meeting’s purpose, rather, was to enlist a number of residents in a steering committee to begin looking into the feasibility of such a project.

She emphasized that any proposed venue shouldn’t compete with local hotels, and that the many vacant buildings in downtown Kalispell should be considered among any possibilities at such an early stage.

“This is just baby steps; we haven’t even formed a committee,” Fisher said, adding that there is “no harm, no foul” in the committee taking the time to study the issue and making a determination in the future that a civic center or performing arts center won’t work in Kalispell.

“There’s also no harm, no foul in thinking, ‘This could be successful; how do we pay for it?’” she said.

Any funding for new studies on the project should come from grants, according to Fisher, but she believes the steering committee could also rely on the ample research undertaken by the local group that spent years raising money for the proposed Glacier Performing Arts Center (GPAC).

That group raised close to $6 million over the course of about four years with the goal of building a 1,300-seat performance hall in Kalispell, along with a “black box” theater that could seat up to 300 people. Envisioned as a venue for Glacier Symphony and Chorale performances, the plan was to also host traveling Broadway shows and rent the space out, thus drawing large crowds to Kalispell and boosting business for hotels, restaurants and myriad other attractions.

The nonprofit eventually reduced its original fundraising goal of $27 million, but still came up short, and once the economy tanked, the group released the $4-million obligation of its biggest donor in 2008.

Jayson Peters, who is currently managing the renovation of Sykes Drugstore, remains the GPAC president, though the board is currently “in hiatus.” Peters said he is no longer sure the idea of a civic center and a performing arts center should necessarily be the same venue. The fairgrounds might benefit from a larger convention or trade show space, and any new performing arts center might be a smaller, separate entity.

“I don’t know if those two things go together,” Peters said.

But Peters thinks now is a good time to begin considering this kind of project, since construction costs are low, and planning could be well underway several years from now when the economy is on the upswing and donors may be easier to find.

He noted the Flathead is likely to draw convention attendees or large crowds during the summer months, the very same season when air transportation and lodging accommodations are already at capacity from tourists.

“Are you going to have resources to keep them coming here?” Peters aske.

He also described a “chicken or the egg” conundrum in establishing Kalispell as a trade show destination: such a facility can’t be supported until a steady stream of visitors exist, but industries won’t consider holding events here until the facility is built.

“That’s always been a challenge,” he said, adding that any project needs to raise funds privately and not rely on municipal bonding. Peters is signing up to be on the steering committee, and like Fisher, said the first task at hand is to figure out what Kalispell residents want, if anything.

“I’m glad we’re revisiting it,” he added.

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