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New center part of remodel plan

A multi-use performing arts center should be part of the proposed Oak Harbor high school remodel because:

A. It would be money well spent

B. If you build it they will come

C. It’s pathetic that Oak Harbor has no such facility

D. All of the above

The correct answer is D. All of the above, according to the school board and supporters of the high school project.

After taking the needs and wants of the school and community into consideration, the design developed by architect Carlos Sierra proposes a 500-seat performing arts center to be an integral part of the high school remodel. The estimated cost would be $3 million of the $57 million project total cost.

The school board is asking voters to finance the remodel with a $45 million bond proposal March 11, with state matching funds making up the rest.

Tony Steadman, board member of the Whidbey Arts Foundation, said the foundation approached the school board about a partnership in a performing arts center about a year ago, after unsuccessfully searching for a stand-alone site in Oak Harbor.

‘We could tell they needed something desperately,” Steadman said, after looking at the current high school facilities.

All assemblies and performances are now held in either the gym, with bleacher seating and cave-like acoustics, or Parker Hall, where the choice is folding chairs and not much better acoustics.

Foundation survey shows strong need

The arts foundation commissioned Jones and Phillips Assoc., a theatrical design and consultation firm, to survey the entertainment facilities and the market for such a facility in Oak Harbor.

The survey concluded there is clearly a need for a performing arts center in Oak Harbor and that integrating it into the high school remodel was the best plan.

“It is logical that people will not hold events if there are no places to have them, so building a facility will allow more events to occur,” the survey said. “There is a strong element of ‘if you build it they will come’.”

Steadman said it is compatible and cost effective to have the performing arts center at the high school, where it could be used extensively for student productions, while still leaving time for outside groups, such as community concerts or theatrical performances.

“The population of the northern half of Whidbey Island is large enough, educated enough and has enough disposable income to support additional live performance events,” the report said.

The report estimated a performing arts center would be used every day for classes plus 116 evening performances and 81 evening rehearsals during a 30-week school year. Based on current activities, the survey estimates an additional 30 nights of use by community groups, with the likelihood that the facility would attract more users.

The school is legally obligated to charge for the use of the facility by outside groups, but only enough to cover the cost to the school. While it wouldn’t be a money-maker for the district, outside use would also not be a financial drain.

The 500-seat figure was arrived at as a compromise between cost and anticipated use. A facility large enough to house the entire 1,800-member student body would be too expensive, and there are few times a space that large is needed.

Steadman said if a performing arts center was available, the non-profit Whidbey Arts Foundation would be able to move from securing a facility to booking acts to perform in the space.

So why wasn’t a performing arts center part of the original school design?

“In 1972, with 1000 students, the vision of education was different than we have now,” Gary Goltz, school district construction manager, said.

More than that, “I feel they were short-sighted,” he added. “They built too cheap of a high school. We wouldn’t be looking at some of these costs now if they’d done more. We don’t want to make the same mistake.”

Parker Hall inadequate

High school drama teacher Shuana Lindsey sees the effects of that short-sightedness every day. Her drama students are constantly frustrated by having to work with outdated equipment that breaks down frequently. The light box that runs all the lighting is so old it is almost impossible to get parts for.

Lindsey said performing is stressful enough for the young actors, without having to worry about whether the lights or sound system will go out.

Thinking that Parker Hall could be used as a performance and dining hall has not worked out very well.

“We perform in a cafeteria,” Lindsey said.

The acoustics in the hall are reversed, with those on stage hearing every whisper in the audience, while the audience has to strain to hear the young actors, especially since the sound system frequently cuts out during performances.

Students rehearsing on the stage have to endure an almost constant flow of spectators who are going to counseling offices or just crossing the hall on their way somewhere.

“It’s a mess,” Lindsey said.

The high school drama club puts on two plays a year, which require about five and a half months of preparation, she said.

She also feels better facilities would draw a bigger crowd, beyond dedicated parents, if they knew they wouldn’t have to endure hard folding chairs and bad acoustics.

Beyond the comfort of the audience is the needs of the hard-working young actors.

“I want the kids to have something they are proud of,” she said. “Anything that gets the community behind the school, I’m all for it.”

Goltz stressed that the performing arts center plans, like all the high school plans, are not set in stone. If the bond is passed in March there will be many more public meetings for input. The design process began with determining the needs of the school, and then allocating the space to meet those needs.

The only thing that will not change, Goltz said, is the total cost.

“We will stay within the budget,” Goltz said, citing the nine other major school projects in the district, all of which have come in on time and under budget.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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