Waiting it Out Isn’t Working

By Kellyn Brown

Some of our online readers were taken aback by preliminary discussions on the feasibility of building a civic center or arts venue in Kalispell. It didn’t help that our story on the subject was published at about the same time we reported city firefighters may be laid off because an arbitrator ruled that they were owed more money.

A sampling of comments:

“Some think it’s more important to have an ‘arts’ venue than to have firefighters and EMTs to serve the citizens.”

“They’re nuts! Maybe they should consider fixing the roads before wasting more money on things we don’t need.”

“Some dreams die hard! But then we wake up and must face reality. Today the number of arts organizations has outgrown the audience and available funding? Supply and demand.”

To be clear, Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher, who hosted a “scoping session” on the idea, hasn’t yet decided whether she would support a conference or arts facility and reiterated that the city is in no position to pay for one. So road and firefighting funds won’t be sacrificed so that we might host a traveling production of “Cats.” Right now, a volunteer committee is being formed and its members will brainstorm preliminary ideas, and that’s a good thing.

Nothing may come of any of this, but at least a diverse group of the city’s leaders, from Fisher to the former mayor she replaced, Pam Carbonari, are considering the core of Kalispell, which is in dire need of something to draw people downtown.

Working on Main Street can be depressing when a walk to lunch involves passing consecutive vacant storefronts. When there is a downtown event, especially during the fall and spring doldrums, it often enjoys a solid turnout – probably because so many people who live in the area are otherwise cooped up with nothing to do.

Major questions persist, of course, about any potential venue: mainly how would it be paid for and where would it be located?

The city manager has suggested that any new civic center should seat around 1,300 people and would require about 3.5 acres of land. But Fisher stressed that existing vacant downtown buildings should be considered as locations. There are plenty to choose from, but they are still confined in size and would require major remodeling to resemble anything close to a venue.

A similar idea to this one has been proposed before, most recently by a local group that spent several years raising money for the Glacier Performing Arts Center. It had raised close to $6 million, a sizable sum but well short of its $27 million goal. And when the economy tumbled, the obligated money was released.

It may be equally difficult to find a combination of private donors and grants to fund a civic center in today’s economy. And there are other logistical concerns, such as lack of transportation to the area and the fact that the area’s performing artists often struggle to sell out existing smaller venues.

But the potential for attracting bigger names and bigger conferences that, in turn, could provide a spark for downtown is worth at least discussing, even if it could be years before our valley is graced by a performance of “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.” (It may take that long for them to fix the show.)

Right now, this is simply a volunteer board looking at what might be feasible in a city that continues to struggle. Since “waiting it out” until the economy improves hasn’t worked so far, perhaps more proactive approaches like this one deserve support.

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