Walton Arts Center Expansion Moves Forward

by Marty Cook  on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013 12:00 am  

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan went door to door in an attempt to persuade voters to approve a $6.9 million bond issue to help pay for the expansion of the Walton Arts Center.

Jordan was confident that the bond issue would be approved in the Nov. 12 special election, perhaps with as much as 70 percent in favor, but he was “significantly” surprised when the vote came in.

Fayetteville voters passed the bond issue by an even wider margin than Jordan expected, with 84.5 percent of the vote.

“We made it happen,” Jordan said. “The Walton Arts Center is certainly one of the crown jewels of our city. It’s a huge driver in downtown.”

Now the $20 million expansion project has moved into the next phase. Center COO Terri Trotter said officials are accepting applications from contractors to do the work and expect to start interviewing prospects early this month.

Trotter said the center would like to have a contractor in place by the end of the year with construction expected to begin in the summer.

“We are really ramping up our fundraising efforts,” Trotter said. “We’re in the design development phase right now, so we’re beginning to make the more detailed decisions.”

The facility opened April 26, 1992, as a cooperative effort between the University of Arkansas and the city. The university wanted an arts center and the city wanted a community performance center, and the Walton Arts Center was a nifty combination of both.

Almost 22 years later, the facility is bulging at the seams as the demand of current productions has often overwhelmed the center’s ability to host them. Trotter said that when the decision to expand was made, a couple of obstacles were readily apparent.

First, the city was planning to build a three-story parking garage on the lot behind the center, which dominates the corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue in downtown Fayetteville. Second, of course, was how to pay for the $20 million project.

Michael Tingley and his colleagues at Boora Architects in Portland, Ore., solved the first problem after three months of drawing, erasing and drawing again. Tingley said it was a “complicated three-dimensional puzzle” to figure out how the center could expand its backstage storage area, its front lobby and one of its two theaters.

The bond issue helped answer the second question, and members of the council are confident that fundraising will bring in the additional $13 million needed to complete the construction. Trotter said the center expects to raise money through foundation grants and through individual contributions.

Trotter and Jordan said the center is crucial to the economics of downtown Fayetteville. Trotter said studies show that visitors to the Arts Center spend an average of $20 in addition to what they spend on tickets.

Trotter said that is the main reason businesses on Dickson Street were such advocates for the bond issue being passed.

“It’s certainly a symbiotic relationship,” Trotter said. “One of the things people like about coming to the Walton Arts Center is coming to Dickson Street. It’s a big part of our brand and who we are.”

Trotter said the lobby expansion is planned first. The lobby will be expanded by about 11,000 SF, which Trotter said will give the center space to rent out for special events.

Trotter said the center wants to have construction start next summer during production offseason so the center can be shut down from mid-July to October. “It is the biggest logistical challenge,” Trotter said. “That is very light programming [months] for us. It gives us a nice chunk of time, but we do plan to open up with a full season of entertainment in October.”

The expanded lobby will be reoriented to face Dickson Street rather than the intersection of Dickson and West. That, too, was planned. “We wanted it to have a stronger presence on Dickson Street,” Tingley said. “It will feel more connected to Dickson Street.”

The trickiest planning involved the backstage areas. The parking garage will take up so much space on the lot that Tingley had little room to spare in devising where to add nearly 15,000 SF of storage area for the center’s 1,201-seat Baum Walker Hall.

The need was great. Trotter said that because modern productions require so much space for things such as storage and dressing rooms, the center had to cannibalize the 160-seat Starr Theater for use as a big closet. Starr Theater was unusable 100 days a year because of its duty as Baum Walker Hall storage. Expanding backstage will allow use of the smaller theater for productions and special events.

Tingley’s final design has the additional space contained in a three-story “sliver” of a building about 50 feet wide. The design will also expand Starr Theater by 4,000 SF to seat 250 people.

Trotter said the council expects all construction to be finished in 2016, but there are no hard deadlines because those details will be determined after the contractor is hired in December. When it is completed, Trotter said the center will be able to host more than the 200,000 patrons it served in 2012 and it will be able to host more special events and community workshops.

“It’s a big win for the city,” Jordan said. “It gave a real jump-start to the Walton Arts Center and real jump-start to the city of Fayetteville. It’s an economic engine and it helps with the advancement of the arts.”



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