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posted: 7/17/2017 5:30 AM

Arts center a multimillion-dollar dream in Elmhurst

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  • Elmhurst Centre for Performing Arts is conducting a feasibility study with an eye toward opening a state-of-the-art performance center in downtown. Exactly how big the center will be, and how much it will cost, is uncertain, but this rendering shows what it might look like.

    Elmhurst Centre for Performing Arts is conducting a feasibility study with an eye toward opening a state-of-the-art performance center in downtown. Exactly how big the center will be, and how much it will cost, is uncertain, but this rendering shows what it might look like.
    Courtesy of Elmhurst Centre for Performing Arts

  • Elmhurst Centre for Performing Arts board members Jeff Budgell and Laura Michaud are among those trying to generate support for an arts facility within walking distance of downtown restaurants.

      Elmhurst Centre for Performing Arts board members Jeff Budgell and Laura Michaud are among those trying to generate support for an arts facility within walking distance of downtown restaurants.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

Members of the Elmhurst Centre for Performing Arts have this dream for their city.

It's not really very complicated when you think about it.

All it involves is building a multimillion-dollar, multispace performing arts center to provide a modern, professional-grade facility for the 30 or so arts groups in and around the city.

Oh, and finding a spot for that space that's within walking distance of downtown restaurants.

And determining exactly how big a center the city really needs and exactly what kinds of amenities it should provide.

And don't forget figuring out how much it will cost -- $5 million? $30 million? -- and then coming up with the money over the next three or four years.

And finally, after all that, making sure the finished product becomes a vibrant gathering place for the arts that's open every day of the week and gives a booming downtown in a booming city another reason to feel good about itself.

OK, maybe we were wrong. Maybe their dream is really, really complicated. But here's the thing: They all believe.

And at least one of them has done something like this before.

Meeting the demand

There are a lot of arts groups in Elmhurst and the surrounding area of Hinsdale, Villa Park and Oak Brook. There's the GreenMan Theatre Troupe for adults and the Elmhurst Children's Theatre for kids. York High School's drama department seems better than ever. There are at least four dance studios and a symphony orchestra and countless programs at Elmhurst College.

Add them up and Laura Michaud, one of the group's four board members, figures there are roughly 30 such organizations and almost all of them are missing one important thing: a brick-and-mortar, state-of-the-art venue in which to perform. The shortage of performance space is hardly a secret for the many groups that take the stage in churches, school auditoriums and even bars. Folks have been talking about the desire for a performance center on and off for at least two decades, Michaud says, but plans to build one "never really solidified and got some wings."

Then, two years ago, a collection of individuals and groups with a strong interest in the arts got together and decided to give it a shot by creating the Elmhurst Centre for Performing Arts with the goal of creating a "dynamic cultural center in the heart of Elmhurst."

The timing seemed right. The city's central business district is red hot, and Michaud says that growth means the downtown can better support a performing arts center and the center, in turn, can better support the downtown.

A strategic group formed to pursue the idea in early 2015 and a few months later created the four-member board of directors that features architect Jeff Budgell as chairman, playwright and local businessman Doug Peterson, York High School Theater Director Rebecca Marianetti and Michaud, who owns her own business.

The group held its first "friendraiser" last July and, truth be told, organizers weren't sure how many people would show up. When a couple hundred did, they looked at each another and thought, hey, this could really work.

Cautious approach

The group is approaching its goal in a businesslike fashion.

If its plans are to become a reality, Michaud says, it will take at least three or four years of building community support, careful planning and avoiding the kinds of missteps that can doom a project.

She knows what she's talking about because she's been through it before as one of the co-founders of Stage 773, an anchor of the Belmont Theatre District in Chicago, where she still serves as chairwoman of the board.

But creating a performing arts center in Elmhurst, she says, "really is a different beast."

"It's very exciting," she says. "Not one person has ever shot a negative like, 'We don't need this.' It's really a labor of love because so many people are behind it."

Jean Carlquist, another member of the group, says she's been pleasantly surprised by the response from the community.

"There's such enthusiasm," she says. "It's really expands the interest in the performing arts."

The group is in the midst of a feasibility study it hopes to complete by the end of September.

That study involves talking to all the city's art groups about what kind of space they need, how big it should be, what kind of sound systems they need, and what services they would like, ranging from a catering kitchen to rehearsal space to a rooftop venue.

Cynthia Bergquist Krainc, executive director of the Elmhurst Symphony, says she participated in the study and let the group's consultants know of her support -- but also her desire to have a bigger stage than projected so the full symphony can perform there.

"I think this is sorely needed in Elmhurst and would be of great benefit to the community and outlying communities," she says. "There's a lot of culture and performing arts in Elmhurst and there's really nowhere for it all to occur."

That kind of input is crucial, Michaud says, because if the group builds something based on its own gut instincts and the arts community really needs something different, "we've set ourselves up to fail."

For now, organizers envision a center with at least two main spaces: one a conventional theater and the second a smaller "black box." They also envision a rooftop area for weddings or banquets and a space for corporate outings.

Once all that is in place, the group may try to produce some of its own shows or lure a few acts from Chicago to the 'burbs. It also will strive to provide an educational component.

In the meantime, organizers already have their sights set on several possible downtown locations, but can't do anything until they know how big a building they'll need.

"We need to know the size," Michaud says. "Whether we need a $5 million building or a $30 million building."

Ah, the rub

Then, of course, comes the tricky part: finding the money.

Michaud says the group already has a list of 3,600 potential patrons -- including a handful who potentially could be large donors. The city is supportive and so are Elmhurst College and several downtown businesses.

Government subsidies, of course, would be welcome and could be justified, she says, because a performing arts center not only will bolster the city's reputation, but also bring more money into downtown.

John Quigley, president and CEO of the Elmhurst Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says he thinks a performing arts center would generate significant traffic for downtown bars, restaurants and businesses.

The big questions are fairly basic, he says: "Where can it go and what's it going to cost?"

"Land in downtown Elmhurst is not inexpensive," he says, "and it's always in high demand."

The dream

Members of the Elmhurst Centre for Performing Arts have this dream for their city.

It's not really very complicated when you think about it.

They envision a vibrant downtown performing arts center with a marquee you can see from passing trains that attracts people from across the city and the region. They see a center that provides space -- state-of-the-art, truly professional space -- for all those arts groups that have waited so long and a building that serves as a cultural center for the city.

"It really excites us," Michaud says.

It's not any more complicated than that.

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