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Charles City community fine arts group looking to raise funds for new auditorium

Charles City community fine arts group looking to raise funds for new auditorium
Vocal music director Derek Sturtevant invites Charles City alumni choral members onto the stage at the North Grand Auditorium to sing “CCHA Alma Mater” at the end of the 2021 fall choral concert, held Nov. 16. A committee is working to raise funds to build a new auditorium, fearing that now that the North Grand Auditorium is in private ownership it will no longer meet the needs for school and other performances and events. Press file photo by Bob Steenson
By James Grob, [email protected]

Most people in the community may not realize it, but Charles City is suddenly in dire need of a performing arts center, according to a committee which is hoping to build awareness and raise money for a new auditorium, to be located near the new middle school.

The Charles City school district and other organizations have previously used the school district’s auditorium at 500 North Grand for a wide variety of performances and productions.

But the auditorium is now privately owned, part of the sale of the older part of the North Grand Building to Shawn Foutch for renovation as apartments.

Foutch has said the auditorium will remain as part of his renovation project and will be available for public and private use, but the groups that have used the space extensively say it is unlikely to continue to meet their needs.

A group of performing arts supporters has come together to raise funds to create a 21st-century rehearsal, competition and performance space that meets the needs of students and the community. The group is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization.

Group Co-chair Tim Mitchell said it’s the committee’s desire to raise the capital through grants and donations, and not out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

“The goal of the committee is to look at how we can make this happen without relying on a bond issue,” Mitchell said. “It’s important that people don’t think we’re coming to them for taxes again.”

The committee has been meeting weekly since last summer and toured facilities at other school districts that have completed similar projects. The goal is an 800-seat state-of-the-art auditorium for school and community events. It would be owned and operated by the school district and be available for daily use, such as music rehearsals and drama classes.

The committee has been given an estimate of $12-15 million for the total project.

The need for a new performance center has come about because North Grand Auditorium, which was built over 90 years ago in 1931, now belongs to the company JMAE, owned by Foutch.

Members of the group advocating for a new auditorium say it won’t be practical or even realistic for the school district and other local organizations — such as the community theater group the Stony Point Players — to use the facility.

North Grand Auditorium has been regularly used by the middle and high school bands, orchestras and choirs for performances. The high school musicals as well as the high school and middle school plays also use the auditorium for performances and weeks of rehearsals. The elementary school music departments also use the auditorium for about four performances a year.

In all, school fine arts groups use the auditorium an average of 192 days per school year.

The stage is used for many non-fine arts events as well, including staff meetings, school-wide presentations, awards ceremonies, Baccalaureate, National Honor Society induction ceremonies, senior recognition night and Veterans Day events.

Non-school groups that frequently use the auditorium include the Stony Point Players, the Charles City Singers, the Community Orchestra, the Municipal Band and the Alumni Jazz Band. The space is also utilized for local piano recitals, dance recitals, the Bill Riley Talent Show, local church functions and political events. In 2017 it even hosted a public session of the Iowa Supreme Court.

“This isn’t something that we’re bitter about,” Mitchell said. “It’s now a privately-owned facility and people have the right to do what they want to. That’s just the way it goes.”

The school will be charged for every time the auditorium is used, which greatly limits the number of rehearsals and days to build sets and for other preparations.

“As time goes on, there’s no guarantee that it will still be a usable space,” Mitchell said. “The tenants there renting apartments may not want 300 middle school kids walking through their hallways.”

Mitchell also said that the auditorium will offer just a stage and seating, and that every performance needs more than that.

“A performance requires a place for musicians to warm up, places for actors to put on make-up and costumes and storage areas for music and drama supplies,” Mitchell said. He said that in the past, the building offered the cafeteria, music rooms and ample basement storage areas. “None of these will exist in the building owned by JMAE.”

The only space available to the performers will be the stage and house, with limited hallway access to both sides of the stage. There will be no space available for equipment, dressing room or make-up application. There will only be one set of restrooms available, to be shared by the audience and performers.

Another serious limitation will be parking availability, as little off-street parking will be available and the spaces that are there will be utilized for those renting apartments in the building.

The committee says the auditorium is in need of repair, as plaster routinely falls from the ceiling over the audience, over the front of the stage and in the north hallway back stage. Although there have been a number of repairs and improvements to the facility in the last 20 years, it is difficult to keep up with recurring repairs due to roof problems.

Mitchell is the committee co-chair. A 1983 graduate of Charles City High School, Mitchell attended Luther College and recently retired and returned home after 34 years of teaching vocal music and theater at Union High School. The other co-chair is Nancy Western, a retired Charles City fine arts teacher.

Other retried fine arts teachers on the committee include Janiece Bergland, Susan Jacob, Larry Michehl and Linda Brant. The rest of the committee includes current fine arts educators Renee Boss, Jacob Gassman, Michelle Grob, Sam Nauman and Derek Sturtevant; Mayor Dean Andrews; CCSD Director of Communications Justin DeVore; Charles City Arts Council President Elissa Ellis; community members Missy Freund, Jeremy and Jodi Heyer, Jodi Holschlag, Cory Mutch, and Ken and Evelyn Sheckler.

The group is supported by the Charles City Board of Education, but is not directly associated with the school district.

“We want this to be a community partnership,” Mitchell said.

The committee is working with professional fundraiser Keith Christensen, who is the former vice-president of Luther College in charge of development and currently holds a similar position at the Mayo Clinic. Christensen lives near Greene and is involved with the Charles City Rotary Club.

The committee states that the proposed new auditorium will be connected to the commons area at Charles City Middle School, angled to the southeast between the middle school entrance and the new transportation center. The 800-seat facility would accommodate the entire high school and middle school student body and eliminate the need for busing, which costs time and money.

The stage would be nearly twice as wide as the North Grand stage and will accommodate band, orchestra and vocal concerts, with ample room for moving sets and for performers to wait backstage.There would be fly space with enough height over the stage to drop scrims and painted drops.

Included will be a scene shop with room to build and store set pieces, storage rooms for costumes, backstage prep areas, restrooms and dressing rooms, a loading dock for touring companies to access the stage as well as for supply deliveries and a catwalk over the audience and backstage to provide required safety in setting lights.

The school board acknowledged the fundraising project at its Oct. 25 meeting.

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