Downtown Elmhurst site selected for new performing arts venue

Supporters of the arts in Elmhurst say they have secured a downtown-area property that would accommodate a proposed $25 million theater and conference center.

In his State of the City address Tuesday, Mayor Steve Morley announced that members of the Elmhurst Centre for the Performing Arts signed a contract Monday to purchase the property. The group's board members have been advised by philanthropic consultants to keep the location under wraps, but they pledge to reveal more as they develop a fundraising strategy.

Board members say they also will need additional funds to complete the purchase, but the contract marks a significant milestone in attaining a vision that began taking shape four years ago: creating a professional-grade venue and vibrant gathering place to showcase homegrown talent from the 30 or so arts group in and around Elmhurst.

"We're really moving forward into a new phase, a new and exciting phase," said Jeff Budgell, an architect and chairman of the five-member board of directors.

The site has enough space for a building that could feature two theaters: a roughly 550-seat main stage and a 130-seat "black box" convertible space. A study funded last year by the performing arts group and the city suggested Elmhurst and surrounding towns could sustain a venue of that size.

"We anticipate it would be able to accommodate all of the things we had in the study and had hoped to accomplish," Budgell said of the property.

Laura Michaud, the board's secretary and treasurer, said the group has "identified and secured a site" that's within walking distance of downtown restaurants. Last year's study, prepared by Chicago-based Johnson Consulting, indicated the average patron visiting the theater would spend $49.50 a night in restaurants, bars and stores - generating more than $7 million a year.

The group has been looking at the site for more than four months, Michaud said.

"It is the perfect location," she said. "I am extraordinarily excited about this piece."

The site's selection will help build momentum around the project, Budgell said, and answers one of the persistent questions facing the group that also includes playwright and local businessman Doug Peterson, York High School Theater Director Rebecca Marianetti and former Mayor Tom Marcucci.

For the past three years, the group has held fundraisers to try to keep the effort alive, garnering about $250,000, Budgell said. But proponents are now working to usher in the next stage of the project: raising enough money for the land and construction.

Organizers recently hired philanthropic consultants, Naperville-based Pruehs & Associates, to conduct a study that will help shape a fundraising strategy that likely will involve naming rights, gifts and grants. A date has not yet been set for one of the group's marquee fundraisers, "Broadway in Elmhurst," an event typically held at Timothy Christian School, Budgell said.

"There's a whole slew of different avenues to raise the money for it, and we'll be working on all of them with our consultants," Budgell said.

The fundraising study likely will take several months to complete, Michaud said, but the process will provide organizers with information they need as it goes along. She said it probably will take about six weeks before organizers can say more.

She said it's important for residents to know that while it's a community project, the arts center will be funded privately and not with taxpayer dollars.

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