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Center for the Arts study optimistic

by: Contributed graphic, The plan for the Gresham Center for the Arts now includes a pair of buildings with a plaza between. The building on the left and the plaza would be built first, while the structure on the right is planned for down the road.

Not only can the community come up with at least $6 million to build a proposed performing arts center in downtown Gresham, but the center can be operated without any city subsidies.

That's what a consultant told Gresham city councilors during a Tuesday, April 24, meeting.

Lanie McMullin, a consultant hired by the Center for the Arts Foundation, told the council that based on revenue projections for the center's unique mixed-use concept, 'I think we can get your subsidy down to zero. … This is one of a handful of times I've been able to say that.'

The news is a huge step forward for the estimated $16 million project that dates back to 2003.

'It will happen,' said Sue O'Halloran, president of the foundation's board of directors, of the performing arts center, 'but we're all trying to do it with good careful thinking so we can actually make it a reality.'

The arts center is slated for 2 acres between Northeast Second and Third streets and Hood and Kelly avenues. It calls for a western multi-purpose building with a first-floor conference center/community meeting place and second-story black box theater, with a second building to the east that would house a full theater.

Between the buildings would sit a plaza for outdoor performances complete with a fountain and art pillars. Initial designs also make Third Avenue a festival street - basically a curbless stretch of roadway perfect for vendors and booths, or events such as Gresham's art walk.

Public comments on the plaza, designed by GreenWorks of Portland, will be solicited Tuesday, May 15, in the lobby of Gresham City Hall. After that, the plans go to city councilors for input.

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But how to pay for all of this was the topic of discussion on Tuesday.

A feasibility study based on interviews with 42 potential donors conducted by Shaw Snow and Associates, a Eugene-based fund-raising consulting firm, concluded that private donors could raise $4 million to $5 million, with another $1 million coming from foundations or trusts.

So far, the foundation has raised close to $800,000 in federal and state grants, as well as private pledges, O'Halloran said. A two- to three-year fund-raising effort is set to kick off in the next few months with the emphasis on those 42 potential donors. After all, 65 percent of the funding will come from fewer than 20 donors and could take a few years to raise.

However, those surveyed were 'very skeptical that the center could ever be financially self-supporting.'

McMullin, who has worked in 126 cities and built 52 theaters throughout the western United States, is confident that with a good management company, Gresham's arts center could break even. With a conference center and theater space in one building, Gresham's arts center creates a unique management opportunity, she said. A professional management company could oversee operations and keep any profit. On the flip side, it's also responsible for any debt the arts center creates.

But any loss could most likely be made up with food and beverage sales, O'Halloran said.

Or other groups, such as a well-established theater company, could manage the space in exchange for using the building.

'I think a good operator would be able to hold the bottom line,' McMullin said. 'You're close here, you're closer than most communities I've worked with because of your unique management opportunities.'

In fact, a local management company has already expressed interest in the Gresham arts center, she said.

There is little competition for conferences in East County and demand for conference space in the greater Portland-metro area is already so great, conference centers are turning business away, McMullin said.

Plus, Gresham's quaint historic downtown core and Gresham Station are exactly the kinds of areas that conference-goers like to spend their downtime.

The only thing Gresham lacks is a hotel large and close enough for conference goers.

All of this is very exciting to O'Halloran and other foundation board members.

'I think people will be excited about an amenity people can point to with pride,' she said. 'And then from there we work on getting a building up out of the ground.'

Meanwhile, the city will 'see how it goes, get arms around,' how to find the remaining $10 million needed to built the arts center.

Take action

The Center for the Arts Foundation is a non-profit organization. To make a tax-deductible donation, call 503-665-3827.