Chehalem Cultural Center expansion makes A-list

The Newberg center's planned performing arts wing wins the support of an influential statewide arts lobbying group

The Chehalem Cultural Center is feeling some wind beneath its planned $5 million Performing Arts Wing. Last week, the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition included the expansion on its list of $9.5 million in capital construction projects it will encourage Gov. Kate Brown and state lawmakers to support when the Legislature convenes next year.

The Chehalem center’s effort was one of 11 projects the nonprofit advocacy group named as compelling candidates for support in the 2021-23 state budget. The coalition will lobby for the Newberg center’s project to the tune of $1.25 million. If approved, construction would likely be completed by the spring of 2023.

To say that the center’s staff is excited is an understatement. Upon learning the news, they announced it on Instagram: “We are thrilled, honored, overjoyed, grateful … and more!”

They have good reason. Since 2013, the coalition has successfully lobbied for more than $13 million in state funds (derived from lottery-backed bonds) that have supported capital projects around Oregon, from heavyweights like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Portland Art Museum to smaller projects, such as the Liberty Theatre in La Grande and the Lincoln City Cultural Center.

A rendering by Scott|Edwards Architecture shows the future LaJoie Theatre in the Performing Arts wing of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. This view is looking north at the facility, which will be on the second floor. Photo courtesy: Chehalem Cultural Center
A rendering by Scott|Edwards Architecture shows the future LaJoie Theatre in the Performing Arts Wing of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. This view is looking north at the theater, which will be on the second floor. Courtesy: Chehalem Cultural Center

By any standard, the Chehalem center is — even in its current, half-finished state —  impressive. The two-story brick building, a WPA project that served as a school until 1995, offers 50,000 square feet of space housing five art galleries, a black box theater, classrooms, a ballroom, a large kitchen, and a ceramics studio.

Virtually all of it, however, is on the remodeled ground floor. Except for some classroom space on the east end of the building, the second floor is a sprawling, empty husk, with a cavernous hallway that spans the building’s length.

The $5 million Performing Arts Wing, for which fundraising is ongoing, would include a roughly 250-seat theater and adjoining green room, a dance and movement studio, and a remodeled lobby that would enable second-floor access with a staircase curving up gracefully onto a mezzanine now used to showcase art. Those stairs will climb to a second, smaller lobby just outside the entrance to the LaJoie Theatre, named after longtime center supporters Merlin and Sandy LaJoie.

The LaJoie Theatre, to be located in the former school building's auditorium, will seat about 250 and will be available for theater, music and dance productions. Photo by: David Bates
The LaJoie Theatre, to be located in the former school building’s auditorium, will seat about 250 and will be available for theater, music and dance productions. Photo by: David Bates

The center’s executive director, Sean Andries, said there is clearly demand for space at the center, which opened 10 years ago. 

Over the past couple of years, as the center has increased its programing, Andries said, the black box, in particular, sells out quickly. Even when performances are in the ballroom, for the Oregon Symphony or the Portland Opera, he said, “we’ll sell a hundred tickets without even really trying. The demand is really strong. We know that if we build this space, we’ll be able to make good use of it.”

He emphasized that the center is interested only in providing the space, not in becoming a performing arts company.

“Yamhill County lacks a quality mid-sized performance space that is for public use,” he said.  “There are great spaces at the universities, but they use them. Gallery Theater has a nice-sized space, but they use it for their own programming. The idea for this space is to bring in dance, concerts, regional touring acts, maybe some national touring acts, but also to make it a space that the community has access to for their own things.

“We want Penguin Productions coming here, we want Willamette Shakespeare in here, we want Chehalem Valley Dance Academy to do shows here. You name it, we want this to be accessible for the community to use.”

The stage of the future LaJoie Theatre will retain the original proscenium as part of the structure. Photo by: David Bates
The stage of the future LaJoie Theatre will retain the original proscenium as part of the structure. Photo by: David Bates

When Andries goes to legislative bat with Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition lobbyists in Salem this winter (even if they end up doing so virtually), one point they plan to drive home goes beyond the obvious cultural benefits to the community. They will also talk up economic development. Fortunately, they’ll have hard data to back them up.

Three years ago, Yamhill County was one of 341 participants in an Arts and Economic Prosperity Study that was spearheaded by Americans for the Arts. Taking into account both direct and indirect “spin-off spending” (people going out to dinner before a show, for example) and using 2015 data from more than 50 local nonprofits, the study found that the arts produced a whopping $45 million impact on the Yamhill County economy, including about 1,150 full-time jobs.

The Chehalem center also dug up some numbers of its own. A few years ago, the center hired ECONorthwest to analyze the potential economic impact of expansion. More than 30 construction jobs would be supported during the year of construction, while spending by construction businesses and worker households would produce a ripple effect of 17 jobs and $2.1 million in Yamhill County. The economic impact of theater operations in the fifth year would total $888,718 and result in nine full-time jobs, according to the report.

The Chehalem Cultural Center plans to transform this cluttered space on the south side of the building, which receives plenty of natural light, into a dance and movement studio. Photo by: David Bates
The Chehalem Cultural Center plans to transform this cluttered space on the south side of the building, which receives plenty of natural light, into a dance and movement studio. Photo by: David Bates

The Chehalem center is a curious creature; on any given day, you can walk inside and find yourself one of only a few people wandering about the cavernous space, where it appears that there’s little or no activity of any kind. But looks are deceiving.

In normal times, which is to say, pre-COVID, the center is ground zero for several high-profile community events: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Dia de Muertos, the Willamette Valley Lavender Festival and Paint Out, and the Camellia Festival. The Fire Writers, a relatively new player in the local cultural scene, has held a young writers conference there for the past two years. During the summer, Tunes on Tuesday offers live music on the large plaza that sits between the center and the Newberg Public Library.

In 2019, the last normal year for which there’s data, the center hosted 50 art classes for both children and adults, seven weeks of summer art camp for kids, more than 30 visual art shows, 40 live public performances, 264 hours of youth mariachi, 20 weddings, and three quinceañeras. More than 600 people logged volunteer hours in some capacity at the center.

Clearly, the center got the advocacy group’s attention. 

The future green room behind the stage of the LaJoie Theatre was once a classroom, and Center Director Sean Andries was both surprised and delighted to learn that the person who taught here was actually named Green. Photo by: David Bates
The future green room behind the stage of the LaJoie Theatre was once a classroom, and Center Director Sean Andries was both surprised and delighted to learn that the person who taught here was actually named Green. Photo by: David Bates

“The organizations behind these projects have all demonstrated commitment and momentum in their endeavor and are ready to engage in the collective advocacy necessary for success of the entire slate,” said Isaac Marquez, Eugene Cultural Services Director and chairman of the coalition’s capital construction committee, in a prepared statement.

If the public money comes through, it will put the Chehalem center within striking distance of securing the full $5 million. It already has $2.5 million in secured gifts. Foundations and prospective gifts would make up the remaining $1.2 million.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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