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Keep momentum for arts center

The long and sometimes difficult drive to establish an arts center in Historic Downtown Gresham has reached a critical moment.

Gresham city councilors on Tuesday should give the art center's first phase a firm shove in the right direction by reiterating their support for the project.

For several years, backers of the arts center have dreamed of creating a community-gathering place and venue for live performances on now-vacant property that was donated to the community by Fourier-Larson family. And while the arts center has struggled at times to attract monetary support, today it is gaining momentum. The project has a broad-based leadership that is representative of the wider community - and those leaders have a well-defined and highly realistic vision of what can be accomplished in a three-phase approach.

The first phase of the project is what goes before the council next week. It includes a plaza linking Northeast Second and Third streets - between Hood and Kelly avenues. It also will incorporate a tent structure at the east end of the site that can be used for a variety of functions ranging from live theater to wedding receptions.

Phase one will establish a base

We believe the plaza is a worthwhile improvement, regardless of what happens with the arts center in the long run. And we believe the tent concept - which has proven successful in other cities - will give Gresham-area residents a taste of what they will experience once the arts center moves into its second and third phases.

The city of Gresham already has committed to spend $1 million in local, state and federal dollars to build the plaza portion of the project. The art center's supporters are working to raise another $1.5 million in private donations to dress up that plaza with amenities and to erect the performance tent. Already, the capital campaign is a third of the way toward that goal.

Once the plaza is completed by next fall, it will establish a literal and figurative base from which to progress toward the second and third phases of the project. The physical presence of the plaza will be a constant reminder to local citizens of the eventual plans for that site. Both the plaza and the tent will immediately become a place for people to gather.

Such concrete evidence of progress is vital for the Center for the Arts Foundation to continue raising money for the project's next phases, which will include a theater building and a performance and events center.

This investment has a payback

Having an arts center in Gresham is important to the city's livability for a number of reasons. One obvious advantage is that East County residents will have more cultural opportunities right in their own back yard. They won't have to travel to downtown Portland for professional theater, concerts and other similar events.

There's also ample evidence that a healthy arts environment contributes to a city's economy. Restaurants and businesses in downtown Gresham will benefit, but a vibrant arts scene also raises property values and attracts the best kinds of businesses and industries to a community.

In its later phases, this arts facility also will become a center for education. It will have classroom, lecture and exhibit space that can be used for cultural field trips. And the center almost certainly will be a place for social engagement.

An arts center will take Gresham one step closer to being a full-service community - a city that can meet most of its residents' needs for housing, recreation, shopping and culture. But this project also will bring tangible economic advantages. The money that is put into the center by either the city or private donors will come back to the community many times over.