UA, WAC building plans discussed (Updated)

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 129 views 

FAYETTEVILLE — University of Arkansas officials are toying with the idea of retrofitting its 1930s men’s gymnasium — former home of the University Museum and now being used by the UA School of Architecture— into a much-needed 600- to 700-seat concert hall.

The venue is necessary to accommodate music rehearsals and performances displaced by other events and performances at the Walton Arts Center, which operates in a partnership with the university. The 20-year-old arts center is operating past capacity and has been looking at expansion plans since at least 2008.

“There’s not enough days on the calendar for us to have all we want here in the Walton Arts Center,” UA Chancellor G. David Gearhart said Tuesday (Feb. 21) during a joint meeting of board members from the Walton Arts Center Council and the Walton Arts Center Foundation Inc.

“We could use a venue every day,” he said. The old men’s gym, which Gearhart called “iconic,” is located between Silas Hunt Hall and the student union on campus. Gearhart said the UA has simply outgrown its only existing performance arts facility, Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall, which holds just 300. It was built 60 years ago, when enrollment was about 5,000, a fraction of what it is today.

The renovated venue would include a balcony overlooking the stage and a large lobby for entertaining.

“It wouldn’t be Carnegie (Hall) — not much is — but it could be a very nice concert hall,” Gearhart added.

To convert the building is expected to cost between $15 million to $20 million and would take 1 to 2 years to complete. Development officials have already been talking quietly to potential donors. The idea would require approval by the UA Board of Trustees before further action.

The university’s proposal alters the Walton Arts Center’s plans to build a venue of the same size in Fayetteville. The 600-seater was part of an overall expansion plan that also includes building a new 2,000-seat performance hall and accompanying 200-seat education center in Bentonville, as well as extensively renovating the existing center on Dickson Street.

On Tuesday, Bob Shook with theater-planning consultants Schuler Shook and Sean Ryan with Venue Cost Consulting presented the two boards with their estimates for building the new and renovating the old. Even without the 600-seat performance venue in Fayetteville, the cost would be $200.7 million, which includes a $20 million endowment. Cost to build the new venue in Bentonville was estimated at $160.1 million, though the pricetag does not include the cost of the land.

Walton Arts Center president and CEO Peter Lane said the center’s leadership is far from finding a site, though the goal is to be as close to downtown Bentonville as possible.

“We’ll have more clarity over the next year,” Lane said.

While researching the need and cost for the Walton Arts Center’s new digs, Shook said his team gathered input last summer from a wide range of stakeholders, such as the center’s staff, arts organizations, performing arts companies such as TheatreSquared, Wal-Mart and its suppliers, nonprofits, and event planners.

Amenities of the new Bentonville facility would include the aforementioned 200-seat education theater, a main stage and one or two balconies, main-floor seating that could convert to a flat floor with seating for 1,300 people; a multipurpose room for 30 people, a lobby with space for a donor lounge large enough for 100 people, an office, a gallery and back-of-house support, which includes dressing rooms, storage and backstage space.

Shook said the Bentonville venue could be used by Wal-Mart to hold its Saturday morning top management meetings.

A 2008 study by another firm recommended that the Benton County performance hall includes at least 2,200 seats, though Shook shook his head at the notion. Costs rise significantly and intimacy is sacrificed when the 2,000-seat mark is broached, he said.

“It’s possible to build a building too big,” Shook said. “We want to make sure we have just the right capacity.”

Renovations to the existing arts center are expected to cost $20.6 million with most of the work being done to the main lobby/front of house and the back of house. Shook suggests nearly doubling the size of the lobby to ease the flow of patrons at major events and for additional rental space for special events.

When the center was built, Shook said, some shortcuts were taken in regard to the size of the backstage and storage areas. As a result, Starr Theater is treated more like a backstage area and is underutilized.

Sprucing up the Dickson Street center is important, Shook said.

“We don’t want this to be the poor cousin while the new performance hall gets built up in Bentonville.”

Improvements to the Fayetteville campus of the Walton Arts Center could be finished as early as 2016 and the new facilities at the yet-to-be-determined Bentonville site are forecast to open in 2018. Webb Management, a third consulting team that did not attend the meeting, estimates that the center will operate in a deficit for the two years before and two years after the Bentonville venue opens, then be back in the black by 2021.

Lane said it was typical of what happens when a center builds a new hall.

“You can’t come out of the gate and hit home runs,” he said.