Most valley residents and fans who have been following the succession of major community projects in the past decade would likely agree that the next big undertaking will be construction of a new aquatic center to replace the Wagner Memorial Pool in Twisp. I say aquatic center because local sentiment supports a year-round indoor pool and possibly other amenities, depending largely on the availability of funding.
The planning process is in the works, thanks to Friends of the Pool, but we’re still years away from replacing Wagner, with much to be decided — and assuredly argued over. Such projects typically endure an arduous gestation process, as did the three completed this year (the Winthrop library, the Twisp civic building and the Okanogan County Fire District 6 fire hall in Winthrop).
But already, I’m picking up vibes for the next-in-line, or perhaps concurrent, community aspiration. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard people encouraging the creation of a performing arts center in Winthrop. Or in Twisp. Both have been suggested.
That’s an intriguing idea, worth some consideration. And some reality checks.
I haven’t heard any elaboration on what a performing arts center might look like, what it might cost or how it would be fully utilized. Would “performing arts” embrace not only music but also theater, dance and other entertainment? The assumption is that it would be beneficial to the local arts community and, by extension, the valley economy. Fair assessment, but in need of some supporting research and documentation.
A big question to answer is, how would a performing arts center, in whatever form, affect the valley’s existing performance venues? Would it supplement or supplant them?
Currently, the most-used indoor facilities of any size are the Winthrop Barn, the Methow Valley Community Center and The Merc Playhouse. Each is now coming back into play as a live venue thanks to the easing of COVID restrictions. Each has its attractions, and limitations.
The community center has been using fundraisers and grants for the past several years to work on a list of improvements that enhance performances (see this week’s Letters to the Editor for an example of how that’s working out), and it can handle a wide range of events including theater. It’s a great resource, one the community has worked hard to preserve and upgrade. But it’s always going to be a former school gymnasium, and there’s not much to be done about that.
Before the Town of Winthrop took over its operation from the Winthrop Auditorium Association, the association board had been promoting a long list of additions and improvements to make the space a better performance venue that, like the community center, could host a variety of events. Not much has happened on that front. The Barn is also an invaluable community mainstay, but the town will need to address its needs sooner rather than later.
The Merc Playhouse has just completed a major overhaul of its seating array, sound and light control booth and heating/cooling system to improve theater-goers’ experience. It also serves as an intimate space for musical performances, but with a smaller audience than the community center or the Barn can accommodate. Without a major expansion, its stage and backstage areas will be cramped. The Merc’s creative types have adapted over the years to make innovative use of the entire space.
Let’s say the idea of a performing arts center gets some traction. The first major issue would be its location — which will certainly engender spirited discussion. Such a facility would, like the new Winthrop library (and eventually the new aquatic center), need an accessible, sizable site with room for a big building and adequate parking. There are a limited number of those, especially given the drive to fill open space with much-needed housing.
Then there’s the matter of funding. The aquatic center is probably going to be the most expensive project the community has ever taken on, with attendant challenges. A performing arts center might cost even more, and it would need to be an all-new venue to make sense. Renovating any of the existing facilities would run into immediate and perhaps unsolvable logistical problems.
For all that, it’s worth the discussion. This community doesn’t tolerate inertia very well. Its default mode is to keep moving forward and think about what’s next. Perhaps an informal group will form around the performing arts center idea (in either or both towns) to begin laying the groundwork. It’s never too early to start.