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3 Tri-City theater projects in the works. What’s the difference?

The cast of Beauty and the Beast sing around musical director Justin Raffa as he plays the piano during the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ boot camp at Academy of Children’s Theatre in Richland. ACT is fundraising to add a 300-seat theater to the back of its Richland building on Wellsian Way.
The cast of Beauty and the Beast sing around musical director Justin Raffa as he plays the piano during the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ boot camp at Academy of Children’s Theatre in Richland. ACT is fundraising to add a 300-seat theater to the back of its Richland building on Wellsian Way. Tri City Herald

If you’ve been to a play, a musical, a ballet or a concert in the Tri-Cities, you know a couple of things.

The area has a wealth of talent. And it has a lack of performing arts space.

It’s a problem that’s been raised by arts groups for years.

Choir, drama and dance troupes often must jockey for slots at area schools and churches — facilities they’re grateful to use, but that weren’t designed to meet their needs.

And bigger, nationally-touring productions — the kind that stop in places like Spokane and Wenatchee — have few options here and often skip the area altogether.

However, some projects in the works in the Tri-Cities aim to address that issue. Three building projects in various stages of development would add significant performance space in the community.

“We have so much in the Tri-Cities, but there’s that one component that’s not here,” said Corey Pearson, executive director of the Kennewick Public Facilities District, which is proposing one of the projects.

“For a town our size not to have (adequate performance space) — it is surprising,” he said.

The projects are all different and would meet specific performance space needs.

Here’s a look at what’s in the works.

The Link

This fall, the Kennewick Public Facilities District will once again propose “The Link,” an improvement and expansion of the Three Rivers campus.

The $45 million project would expand and update the Toyota Center, add multipurpose and exhibition space to the Three Rivers Convention Center, and link the two facilities with a 2,300-seat theater.

Other features range from a new ice rink to more parking.

The project would be an economic boon to the area, allowing the campus to attract more and bigger trade shows, conferences and entertainment/sporting events, supporters have said.

It would also improve the Three Rivers experience for patrons and enhance local quality of life, they’ve said.

Pearson said the theater is an important piece of the proposal.

“It’ll be able to host the national comedy acts, national plays that we bring in — a lot of the big touring stuff,” he told the Herald.

Currently, the campus has to temporarily reconfigure the Toyota Center — where the Tri-City Americans play — to accommodate those kinds of shows.

“My joke is, (when I’m talking with organizers about bringing in events), I’m the only one on the conference call that says, ‘I have to check with my hockey team,” Pearson said.

The Link project would be paid for with a 0.2 percent sales tax increase, adding two cents to a $10 purchase. The proposal will be on the Nov. 7 ballot in Kennewick.

Vista Arts Center

While The Link would be paid for with a sales tax increase, the nearby Vista Arts Center will be built using private donations and grants.

The nonprofit Arts Center Task Force has been working for years on the project, which is gaining momentum.

In March, Port of Kennewick commissioners earmarked 2.2 acres at Vista Field for the center. The task force plans to unveil a conceptual design Aug. 22.

The central location is ideal, said Steven Wiley, task force chairman. “Putting an arts center there will do so much to drive the community,” he said.

The Vista Arts Center will include an 800-seat theater with a full orchestra pit and a fly loft above the stage.

It’ll also have a large lobby that can be used for events, plus multipurpose performance, gallery, education and catering/kitchen spaces.

The center will host dozens of local performing arts groups, along with mid-size professional touring groups.

“The idea is that every week, most nights something will be going on there,” from concerts to dance performances, plays, musicals, art exhibits, conferences and festivals, Wiley said.

The center is supported by dozens of local arts groups. The price tag is estimated at $35 million and the hope is to have the center built within five years.

Academy of Children’s Theatre

Academy of Children’s Theatre in Richland also is fundraising for its own theater project.

The nonprofit currently has a facility with classrooms and a black box theater on Wellsian Way. It’s looking to add a 300-seat theater in the back half of the building.

The theater is a long-planned addition to ACT, which serves hundreds of children a year.

A $1.5 million fundraising campaign is under way. ACT leaders hope to have the new theater ready for performances in 2020.

“It’s the mission of ACT to provide educational opportunities in the theater arts,” said Anne Spilman, managing director.

The theater expansion will “enhance our ability to do that,” she said.

It’ll be used for performances and to give students hands-on experience behind-the-scenes in everything from sound to sets and lighting.

ACT also will use it for classes, workshops and more, Spilman said.

The children’s theater puts on five main stage productions a year, with hundreds of kids from around the region taking part.

It also runs numerous groups and classes, from improv ensembles to a Tech Titans program that teaches technical theater skills. And it runs outreach programs, from working with juvenile justice center youth to offering a Spectrum on Stage program for kids on the autism spectrum.

‘We’re all for them’

Spilman said ACT’s expansion is needed to keep pace with growth and demand.

And she supports The Link and the Vista Arts Center, as well. They’re all specific projects that meet specific — and different — needs, she said.

Wiley, from Vista Arts Center, feels the same way. “We’re all for them,” he said of the other projects. “The arts bring us together to create something we can all share, we can all love.”

Pearson, from The Link project, said a community the size of the Tri-Cities needs more performing arts space.

He used to live in an Illinois city comparable in size to the Tri-Cities, and it had several indoor and outdoor theater spaces, he said.

When he’s in this community talking about The Link, “people came up and say, ‘What are you looking to do?’” he said.

When he explains, they’re often supportive. “People say, ‘If you tell me it has theater and culture, I’m all for it. It’s something we need.’”

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald

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