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September 19th, 2007 Stephen Marc Beaudoin | News Stories
 

Les Little Miserables

Will Northwest Children’s Theater get a fixed-up home?

     
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The Northwest Children’s Theater has an ambitious dream: raise $6 million in the next five years to turn its crumbling home into a flagship arts center serving three times as many children as now.

The Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, which rents space to the Children’s Theater, is dealing with old wiring, lack of accessibility for the disabled and a dangerously leaky roof.

“If it’s raining pretty heavy,” says Michael Stirling, Children’s Theater development director, “you better be careful where you’re sitting.”

The answer to whether those structural problems get fixed will probably be determined by talks going on now over a new long-term deal. The troubling roof is but one item on a long repair list for the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, which collects about $134,500 a year in rent from the Children’s Theater.

Built in 1909 as the First Church of Christ, Scientist, the Cultural Center occupies a half-block between Northwest Everett and Flanders streets and 18th and 19th avenues. Since being abandoned by the church in the early 1970s, the center has nearly been demolished at least three times.

A 2004 report by the Portland architectural firm Richard Brown Architects noted “major structural deficiencies” in the building’s earthquake-proofing support, and that “in general, all roof areas are near the end of their useful lives.”

The report especially sounded an alarm regarding the space most heavily used each year by 30,000 kids ages 4 to 18: the auditorium.

“We place our highest life safety concern in the Auditorium,” the report reads, “where the risks are greatest and the consequences most severe, given the large gatherings of children.”

The report prompted the Children’s Theater to make a $2.1 million offer in 2005 to the nonprofit Cultural Center for the entire 33,000-square-foot building. Theater officials said owning the site would help persuade donors to contribute for a full renovation. But the center board and its members rejected the offer in January 2006.

Now they’re hammering out a new long-term lease agreement aimed at giving the theater a permanent and fixed-up home while reducing the rent by more than $100,000 a year.

Among the questions to be resolved: who will own the Center, whether the Children’s Theater can pull off a multimillion-dollar capital campaign when its overall annual budget is only $1.3 million, and how long that leaky roof will last.

“The [center’s] board has a responsibility to manage and maintain this building, and they don’t really have the resources,” says Douglas Capps, a Children’s Theater board member.

The theater has poured more than $130,000 into improvements over the past three years.

Consensus may be hard. The center wants to keep the mix of community meetings and nonprofit use. The Children’s Theater sees more specific use for youth programs with groups such as Portland Youth Philharmonic and Do Jump.

But center board chairman Ike Bay says he’s open to a deal because his board has little track record for nonprofit fundraising. And he says the Children’s Theater can create a larger Youth Arts Center serving 100,000 kids a year.

“We’re talking about a very close relationship with the theater,” Bay says. “It is our job to preserve the building, and we would like to see it do service for the next 100 years.”

 
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