As a member of the performing arts community, I have long recognized the need for a quality venue to support our local arts organizations. Finding and scheduling a venue for concerts, plays, ballets, and operas is frequently one of the biggest challenges to producing quality live events. I spoke with two members of the Arts Center Task Force (ACTF) — the Executive Director, Phinney Brown, and the Chair, Steve Wiley — about plans to make The Mid-Columbia Arts Center a reality.
Let’s start with the vision. Tell me what the performing arts center will be like and what it will bring to our community.
Phinney: From what we can tell, the Tri-Cities might be the only metropolitan area of its size in the country without a performing arts center, and that’s not the kind of ‘unique’ that we want to be. With proper cultural infrastructure, the people of the Tri-Cities will be able to enjoy the arts and host guests and clients in a local facility of high quality and comfort. Parents and grandparents will give their children and grandchildren the magical experience of seeing and participating in the arts. Businesses will profit by locating it in a very desirable entertainment district. Corporations and Hiring Managers will more easily recruit talented employees who want cultural experiences. Artists will have access to a central facility with outstanding acoustics and technical support. Tri-Cities will be known as the cultural hub of the region, offering a full quality of life experience in a centralized location. The arts are a win for everyone. We’re a community of over 300,000 people at this point, and we deserve all the amenities that a community of our size should offer.
Who will be able to use the performing arts center? Is it intended for local arts groups, touring performances, other types of performances?
Phinney: The Mid-Columbia Arts Center is first and foremost a community-focused project. In addition to showcasing the quality and depth of local artists and organizations, it will provide a regular schedule of touring performances and events.
ACTF has been working to bring a performing arts center to our region for almost thirty years. What have been some of the challenges in the past, and how is the current initiative different from previous ones?
Steve: Originally, the Arts Center Task Force was an advocacy group working with the City of Richland to build a performing arts center near the river. The City was interested, but the original plans were vague, there was some uncertainty as to how much it would cost and whether the area had the necessary financial resources. When the Richland Public Facility District (RPFD) was created in 2002, it chose to build the REACH rather than a performing arts center because it seemed a safer choice.
An analysis we did in 2012 suggested that we would not be successful until we could nail down the scope and cost of the project and be prepared to design, build, and operate it ourselves. Unfortunately, the analysis also suggested that the initial design phase of the project would require hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the time we had around $7,000 in the bank. It seemed an impossible task, but we had confidence in our dedicated team of volunteers.
Since then, we have raised over a million dollars in donations, some of which we’ve used to nail down the size and cost of the facility. We created a business plan, a fundraising feasibility study, identified a site, and have the support of almost all the local arts and civic groups. Our new, detailed plans have been favorably received by the City and Richland Public Facilities District. We have also opened our ‘ACTF Headquarters’ that not only provides offices for our organization, but much-needed conference rooms, studios, and rehearsal space for the local arts community. It has taken time to get to this point, but I am so proud of our members who have stayed the course over the last decade.
There are capital costs to build a project like this, and then there are ongoing operating costs. How will construction of the center be funded, and how will operating costs be covered?
Steve: Our planned 800-seat facility should meet the needs of about 95% of the groups who plan to use it. We estimate it will cost around $40 million for the building itself. We can raise about half of that from private donors, grants, and state funding. The other half would need to come from a bond measure, like what the City of Pasco has done for its planned aquatic center. Our business plan shows that operating costs will be mostly covered by revenues generated from hosting shows. This is true for most successful performing arts centers, but it requires having shows almost continuously. This means having something going on at the performing arts center almost every weekend. Great for local audiences, but a lot of work for the center staff!
How soon could this vision become a reality?
Steve: If the City and RPFD say “yes” to our plans in the next 6 months, and assuming the bond measure passes, groundbreaking could be in early 2025 with an opening in late 2026.
Other than the obvious financial support, how can our readers and the community support this project?
Phinney: We need volunteers! It takes a village. We’re working on ramping up our volunteer recruitment efforts to utilize the voices of our supporters and community. We need the community to come together to let the City of Richland know that the performing arts center isn’t just something that we want someday, but something that we need right now.
What else would you like the community to know?
Steve: We have done about all we can do at this point to create a bold vision of the Mid-Columbia Performing Arts Center, to show how and where it can be built, and to demonstrate that it is a practical vision that will support itself. All we need is for the City of Richland to say “yes,” but they will not say yes just because ACTF wants it. They will only respond to the people of Richland saying they want and NEED it. The fate of the arts center is now in the community's hands. The arts transform lives and help bring a community together. If you share our vision of an arts center, let the Richland City Council know!
Where can people find out more about ACTF?
Phinney: Send an email to me at email@example.com! I’d love to answer your questions and tell you more about what we’re doing. You can also sign up for our email list, check out who we are, and see our listing of current happenings at artscentertaskforce.com.
Ted Miller has been part of the local performing arts scene for over 25 years. He currently serves as president of the Washington State Community Theatre Association.