A home for the arts? Site in Vista Field identified for center

The future of Vista Field came into sharper focus this week.

Proposed roadways, a grassy central park with a pond and commercial and residential neighborhoods were detailed in sketches from the Port of Kennewick.

And across from the planned town square at the heart of the development? A proposed site for a performing and visual arts center.

“Basically everything we were hoping for was there,” said Steven Wiley, chairman of the Arts Center Task Force.

It’s not a done deal. Port commissioners have made no official decision. But they generally supported the idea and told their staff to work with the arts group on a formal proposal.

If the arts center is built there, Vista Field stands to benefit from it given the strong support for it by many Tri-Citians, said port officials.

“One commissioner has said, ‘How fast can we get it done?’” Tim Arntzen, the port’s executive director, told the Herald.

But it’s likely to be years before construction could start.

The port still needs millions of dollars to run utilities through the property. Arts folks plan to privately raise money to build the center. And there’s plenty of other hurdles along the way for the entire Vista Field project.

“If the community doesn’t own this, it could fall apart in a few years,” said Tana Bader Inglima, the port’s director of governmental relations and marketing.

Vista Arts Center

The port has been working on the Vista Field project since 2013 after closing the small airstrip near Columbia Center mall in favor of redeveloping the 110 acres into something completely different — an urban core for the Tri-Cities filled with a hybrid mix of places to live, shop and play.

Those advocating for an arts center, long concerned about the lack of performance space for the region’s various ballet, orchestral and vocal groups, have participated from the start in discussions aimed at steering the future of the former airfield.

But interest in creating an arts center coalesced in recent months with the task force. Then in June, the group announced it had hired a consultant to investigate the feasibility of an 800-seat performing arts center with gallery space.

The group has yet to release the business plan to support the proposal or a cost estimate.

But a portion of the consultant’s report provided to the Herald describes how the tentatively named Vista Arts Center would have divided orchestra and balcony seating, a 70-foot-wide stage and possibly a lift system to allow the orchestra pit to be raised to expand the stage.

The final design would draw inspiration from facilities in Portland to large cities in Texas and Florida, which cater to local arts groups but are capable of hosting some touring performances.

“There are many advantages to the (Vista Field) location, most notably its central location in the Tri-Cities, ... (and) immediate proximity to the Three Rivers Convention Center, as the future venue could well support some meeting and convention activities,” said an excerpt of the report by a national consultant, James Baudoin from Theatre Collaborative.

Many who commented at last week’s public forum talked about the importance of a performing arts center at Vista Field, telling port commissioners it was a clear need, a logical fit and had solid backing. Wiley said he’d hoped for a strong showing for the project but he was blown away by the response.

“Everyone there was wildly enthusiastic about a performing arts center, and I didn’t even know who most these people were,” he said.

Drawing people in

Port officials admitted putting an arts center at Vista Field has its benefits.

With a project this large “you have to have something catalytic,” Bader Inglima said.

The arts center could serve as part of the first phase, helping draw other development that would benefit from the crowds attending performances, officials said.

While the task force hasn’t made a formal pitch to the port, officials have begun thinking of ways they could help move the project along. For example, the port could provide a deed to some Vista Field property if the arts group meets a specific fundraising threshold, said Arntzen.

That deed, which could have conditions on its use, could then be used as collateral for a loan by arts center advocates to supplement further fundraising and grants.

“There has to be a mechanism to ensure the public doesn’t just give away property that doesn’t go to an intended purpose,” Arntzen said.

The long road ahead

There’s still a lot of work to go into Vista Field, however.

The project is expected to take 20 to 30 years to fully build out. There have been meetings with Kennewick city planners to go over the various issues that will require careful attention to move it forward, such as the need to amend city codes on street specifications, zoning and other issues that are part of the port’s master plan.

Early on there were concerns about how the new roads would align with existing streets around the Toyota Center and convention center. The current master plan shows Deschutes Avenue punching across Vista Field to connect with Grandridge Boulevard.

That same master plan shows no direct link between the convention center and the Toyota Center to access Vista Field, another point of contention in the past. However, the possible performing arts center faces toward those facilities, with a grassy central park and pond between them.

More workshops with city staff are planned in October with a public hearing in November for the city council to consider approving the Vista Field master plan.

“The city of Kennewick is definitely a partner with the port and very excited for the opportunities the Vista Field area provides to the future growth of our community,” city spokeswoman Evelyn Lusignan said in an email.

Current plans call for private developers to build the redevelopment under the port’s direction and guidance. But those developers will need electricity and water lines at a cost of $5 million to $10 million to the port.

It’s not yet clear how the port will pay for those improvements, though land sales, grants and requests for help from the state and city of Kennewick are being considered. They’ve said a property tax increase on port residents would be a last resort.

Discussions with the city could get hung up on aspects of the vision for Vista Field, Arntzen said.

The redevelopment will bear some similarities to current areas, such as downtown, but still be very new to the area and that could make Kennewick council members skeptical. The length of time to complete the project and the likelihood of turnover on the council and port commission, could further complicate issues.

Even those rooting for an arts center don’t all agree. A speaker at last week’s forum questioned the long-term usability of an 800-seat facility and if that was too small.

“What about 20 years down the road?” she said.

For now, though, port officials and arts center advocates are focusing on what they can do now to get to where they hope to be decades down the road.

“This will take time,” Arntzen said.