Karena VanDyke’s three children are among the 4,000 students in the past decade who’ve attended Tri-Cities Academy of Ballet and Music in Richland.
Owners say the studio is packed from 3:30 to 9 p.m. every school day.
Generations of families, including VanDyke’s, have taken lessons and performed there.
VanDyke, 36, of Richland, started as a student there in 1986, taking ballet, jazz and tap dancing. She’s taught there for 12 years. Her daughters, Mikayla, 12, and Alayna, 8, take ballet. Kason, her 5-year-old son, is in the performing arts preschool.
“This is basically like my second home,” she said. “I love the experience they get and the performances they get to put on.”
But the building that holds the memories and lessons many of the school’s students learned there could be demolished under one scenario to improve the gateway into Richland, where 42,000 vehicles a day pass through.
A city proposal to give Aaron Drive its own intersection and traffic signal at George Washington Way would require the demolition of the 12,000-square-foot building ballet studio. The new intersection would be just south of the existing intersection where Aaron Drive and Columbia Point Drive meet George Washington Way.
Removing the ballet school building would allow a widened Aaron Drive to curve out and then go perpendicular to intersect George Washington Way, said Pete Rogalsky, Richland’s public works director. That is similar to what Aaron Drive now does at its existing intersection with George Washington Way and Columbia Point Drive.
“To actually fit a road in there, it requires that,” Rogalsky said.
Rogalsky points out that the process for the $5 million to $7 million project is in its early stages. Work is still three to five years from starting, with no construction schedule in place and no money identified to build it with. He said the city is discussing three traffic proposals with residents so the process can be as transparent as possible.
Owners don’t want to move
The school has seen former students go on to success in dancing and other careers. But more important to co-owner Joel Rogo are the thousands who come through learning discipline, determination, commitment and teamwork.
“This school is our American dream,” said Rogo, who took over the school 28 years ago. “We don’t want to close our doors. At the age of 66, I don’t know if I want to start over again. We put 28 years into this business.”
Joel and his wife, Debra Rogo, moved to the Tri-Cities from Los Angeles to take over the studio and the nonprofit Mid-Columbia Ballet. The former dancers, who met when Joel was in Australia with the original touring production of A Chorus Line, moved from a 6,000-square-foot building to the location on Aaron Drive 13 years ago.
“When we originally came here, we were only planning on staying for five years,” Debra said. “Here we are, we’ve built a great life. I have hundreds of students who have grown into wonderful young men and women, and I’m not ready to walk away. I still have so many students that I want to grow into adulthood.”
A new option
The city proposal requiring the demolition of the ballet school wasn’t originally put forth by Richland. The city’s website listed only two proposals until Thursday — one that would expand George Washington Way from seven lanes to 10 and another putting a cul-de-sac on Aaron Drive and giving drivers access to George Washington Way with a new road built along a tree-line going between George Washington Way and Jadwin Avenue.
The city came up with the third option recently after discussions with the state Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, Rogalsky said. It is a new wrinkle on the “split T” intersection Richland was already considering with the new street, which would intersect with George Washington Way in a similar location as the Aaron Drive proposal.
“It was an idea that came out of an engineering brainstorming process,” he said. “In some respects, it simplifies the construction and impact of the split T configuration.”
The Rogos are not fans of the proposal to build a new street connecting to George Washington Way, either. The ballet school would be able to stay, but it would be at the dead-end of Aaron Drive, which Joel said would add a mile to the drive for people coming off George Washington Way. It would also take out part of his parking lot.
“I don’t like the thought of fighting the city, but the only plan I can support is widening George Washington Way,” Joel said. “If we can work together to find a solution, I’m far happier than to fight.”
The studio offers jazz, tap and hip-hop dancing, as well as musical theater and lessons for the piano and guitar, for children 3 years old to adults. It rents space to belly dancing and martial arts groups, as well as the Mid-Columbia Musical Theater.
“I don’t think that I can replace what we have here,” Joel said. “I don’t know if I can afford another location like I have here.”
It also serves as the home base for Mid-Columbia Ballet, which puts on the annual Nutcraker Suite at Richland High School’s auditorium. Debra is the nonprofit’s artistic director, reporting to a board of directors.
The ballet has taken Peter and the Wolf and The Ugly Duckling to elementary schools since 1992, performing in front of 82,000 children, Joel said. It has also bused in 67,000 area fifth-graders to watch the Nutcracker since 1991.
Keeping that going would be difficult without the studio, Joel said.
“Dancing isn’t one of those things where you can just find rehearsal space,” he said. “You have to have a dance studio, and dancers have to train daily.”
The loss of the studio would be tough to imagine, said Melissa Malone, 24, of West Richland. She’s a former student who teaches at the ballet academy.
“It would be a detrimental devastation to the community,” she said. “All the little kids who are wishing to be ballerinas wouldn’t get the opportunity or the training they need.”
Privately owned art businesses are particularly needed because art isn’t a priority in schools, Malone said.
“We don’t have a lot of art outlets,” she said. “It definitely helps bring culture to the Tri-Cities.”
Open house June 11
The ballet academy is encouraging supporters to attend the city’s open house, scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. June 11 at the Richland Community Center, 500 Amon Park Drive. As of Friday, almost 400 people replied on the ballet school’s Facebook page that they plan to attend.
Joel points to social media comments after the Herald’s story ran earlier this week on the city’s plans. Many readers said the city should reduce traffic on George Washington Way by improving the bypass highway with new interchanges with overpasses at streets like Duportail and Van Giesen.
But each new interchange would cost between $35 million and $40 million, making such a project too expensive, Rogalsky said.
The other proposed configurations at George Washington Way would have effects of their own. The city would have to buy and demolish several homes to widen George Washington Way to 10 lanes, though not the house now being built at the intersection of Aaron Drive and Abbot Street, Rogalsky said. The new street would require Richland to buy slivers of numerous lots, but no buildings would need to be torn down.
“If one of the options is selected that requires us to buy an existing property, the project would have both the time and money in place to plan that and put it all together,” Rogalsky said. “State and federal regulations are very clear about compensation for impacted properties.”
None of the proposals would require any businesses other than the ballet school to be demolished, Rogalsky said.
For Paige Suttich, 15, a freshman at Hanford High School, the financial compensation would mean little if the school doesn’t continue. She has dreams of going to the Julliard School in New York City.
Suttich was unsure whether she wanted to move with her family last year to the Tri-Cities from Gig Harbor, but felt at home once she saw the Tri-Cities Academy of Ballet.
“The organization as a group pushes us to be better dancers and better human beings,” she said. “I never would have gotten that in Tacoma or Gig Harbor.”