Investment in performing arts center is money wisely spent

THE OLYMPIANFebruary 5, 2012 

Editor’s note: Publisher George Le Masurier serves as chair of the Washington Center’s board of directors.

The Washington Center for the Performing Arts has made some news lately; some good, some not so good. The center celebrated its 25th anniversary in the fall of 2010, it has struggled financially in this recessive economy and with the city is about to embark on a complete renovation and redesign of its exterior appearance.

These challenges and opportunities are just the latest events in the life of an iconic public asset that actually began about 50 years ago when the people of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater recognized a growing need for a community performing arts center.

They envisioned a place where local singers, dancers, musicians and actors could perform on a top-quality stage. A place that performing arts teachers could use to inspire their students and where our young people could find the self-confidence to perform in front of family and friends.

That vision began when the old Olympia High School was demolished in 1961, taking with it the 1,374-seat auditorium used by almost all local arts programs. Several efforts to recreate a large performance space followed – and failed.

There was the Committee of the ’60s and, later, the Memorial Arts Committee. Both proposed bond issues to build theaters, and voters turned both down. Then came Verne Eke who, in 1973, formed the Capital Area Association for the Performing Arts (CAPPA).

CAPPA convinced Olympia Mayor Tom Allen to pledge a 28-acre former garbage dump site on Black Lake Boulevard for an arts center, that skyrocketed in value from $200,000 to $2.5 million in just five years.

But before CAPPA could raise all the funds to build the facility, a group formed to rejuvenate downtown Olympia, called the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (RUDAT), recommended the arts center be located in the city’s core.

CAPPA, RUDAT and eventually the Patrons of South Sound Cultural Activities (POSSCA), settled on the old Olympic Theater, and after several capital campaigns, and some chaotic construction activity, the Washington Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors in the fall of 1985.

Since then, the Washington Center has hosted more than 6,000 public performances, and welcomed more than 2.5 million people into the grand opera-style theater. More than 200,000 individual performers have taken to the center stage.

The center mainly hosted local groups of young and old performers in its first years, which remains the center’s core mission. Over the years, the center staff has programmed its own presenting season of nationally acclaimed musical and theater acts.

But it is often misunderstood that these special events, the big Broadway shows and big-name acts, represent only about 10 percent of what really goes on at the Washington Center.

Groups such as Olympia Junior Programs, the Olympia Youth Chorus, Studio One Dance Association, Olympia Sweet Adelines, Ballet Northwest and others stage about 90 percent of the activity at the center. There are more than 45 different groups that regularly use the center, and the list is growing every year.

The Olympia City Council recently signaled its continued support of the Washington Center’s mission, as well as its commitment to downtown revitalization, by approving the resurfacing and redesign of the WCPA building’s exterior. This is a multi-million dollar game-changing project that could trigger a series of related redevelopments throughout the downtown core.

Arts groups, downtown businesses and the public at large will have the opportunity to engage in this project. It promises to add vitality to the downtown and the regional arts community.

By taking good care of this historic building, the City Council has ensured the greater Olympia area will have a quality community performing arts center for many more years to come.

George Le Masurier, publisher of The Olympian, can be reached at 360-357--206 or glemasurier@theolympian.com.

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