Walton Arts Center Lobbies to Expand

Walton Arts Center Lobbies to Expand
Terri Trotter

Equipped with theatrical lighting and room to accommodate an audience of fewer than 200, the Starr Theater at the Walton Arts Center is perfect for intimate performances. It’s a room versatile enough to handle setup for special events like receptions or dinners.

It also makes a great storage closet.

In fact, serving as an auxiliary backstage area for productions held inside the larger Baum Walker Hall has become the primary function of the venue. A recent six-day run of the popular musical “Memphis,” for example, left it unusable for any purpose other than storage for the better part of a week in February.

Misuse of the Starr Theater is just one reason why Walton Arts Center officials are working to follow through with a proposal for a $20.6 million expansion in downtown Fayetteville. If things go according to plan, they’ll open an additional 30,000 SF by 2015.

“It’s crazy. One of our theater planners calls it the most expensive storage closet he’s ever seen,” joked Terri Trotter, chief operating officer of the Walton Arts Center. “It’s a fully equipped black box theater, but we don’t have an option right now other than using it for additional dressing room space.

“That’s why our expansion plans are so very critical.”

The Walton Arts Center, built in 1992 as a joint venture of the city and the University of Arkansas, became the centerpiece of efforts to revitalize Dickson Street. There was a time when the stretch of road in the middle of the town’s now popular entertainment district was viewed as off limits for families and business people. Perceptions changed and Dickson now thrives, thanks in no small part to the venue’s impact.

As population in Fayetteville and northwest Arkansas has grown, the Walton Arts Center hasn’t been able to accommodate the additional people or the demand. Officials at the Walton Arts Center see the expansion as critical for a region they view as underserved when it comes to the arts.

Revamping the center in Fayetteville is part of a massive $200 million campaign by the Walton Arts Center. It’s seeking funding for the original location, plus $20 million for an endowment and $160 million for a new venue in Bentonville.

Fayetteville has first priority and a city parking garage project set to begin this summer has accelerated the timetable for the Arts Center’s expansion. When construction begins to expand Dickson Street parking, the Walton Arts Center administrative offices will be demolished. Boora, an architecture firm based in Portland, Ore., is working with the center and city to incorporate the parking garage as part of the expansion.

So you can add administrative offices to the wish list.

Other pieces of the proposal include a larger backstage area to help support larger shows, new lighting for Baum Walker Hall and an expanded main lobby that extends to Dickson Street and provides room for more events and new administrative offices.

$1.1 Million Yearly Impact

A study commissioned by the Walton Arts Center projects an additional 22,500 people will be drawn to the venue and Dickson Street. That would generate an additional $1.1 million per year in economic impact just for Fayetteville.

Because of the potential for bringing tax revenue into the city, the Walton Arts Center has called on the Fayetteville A&P Commission to help come up with $8.5 million in funding. On March 11 the A&P board will evaluate a proposal that would extend a bond issue in the city to help fund the expansion and generate money for the theater and two other projects in the city.

A&P Executive Director Marilyn Heifner is asking commissioners to consider backing the WAC expansion, plus plans for a regional park and permanent outdoor concert venue. Total cost for the project would be about $24 million, an amount that Heifner thinks can be raised through a voter-approved extension of a local hotel, motel and restaurant tax.

Funding from the A&P, which has never committed more than $500,000 to a single project, will be crucial in carrying out the expansion, Trotter said. Getting the $8.5 million would help kick-start the fundraising efforts and the vision to improve what the Walton Arts Center can offer.

Getting A&P approval is just the beginning, though. From there the bond issue would need to go before the city council, which would then turn it over to a vote of Fayetteville residents.

“It’s a huge campaign,” Trotter said. “It’s an exciting time for us.”