Vista Arts Center agreement possible by year’s end

The Port of Kennewick soon could have an agreement with a group looking to open a performing arts center at Vista Field.

The letter of intent for the port and the Arts Center Task Force to work together is the first major step in the process, said Steven Wiley, the task force’s chairman, during the port commissioners’ Tuesday meeting.

The collaboration could lead to the opening of an 800-seat facility at the former airport within five years.

Commissioners were favorable to the plan.

A number of leaders from the Tri-City arts community attended the meeting, but Wiley, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said he was there because it is difficult to recruit scientists, and particularly their spouses, because of the lack of performing arts in the area.

“I have no skin in the game,” he said. “I just want to raise the quality of life.”

The proposed 40,000-square-foot Vista Arts Center would cost between $15 million and $19 million and would be privately funded, Wiley said. It would feature a main level with 525 seats and a 275-seat balcony.

The facility would have an art gallery and space for receptions and other public gatherings.

The task force would like to start raising money for the project early next year. Wiley said it would take about a year and a half to raise the money with the hope of breaking ground within two to three years.

The project is considered the first phase, with a larger 2,000-seat performing arts center to be built at a later time in the same area. Wiley said that would cost between $80 million and $90 million, and would take between five and 10 years of fundraising.

The task force wants to get the smaller center built with the current need for an anchor facility at Vista Field.

Wiley acknowledged that an 800-seat venue likely would be too small for touring Broadway shows.

Boyce Burdick, board president for the Mid-Columbia Symphony, said the facility would be just fine for his group. He said he can only recall seeing audiences of 800 people twice.

“A lot of people like the fact that it’s 800 seats,” Wiley said when asked what the most and least popular features of the proposal are. “A lot of people don’t like the fact that it’s 800 seats.”

The task force is asking the port for land in a central location, help with infrastructure and a commitment to help bring in complementary facilities like restaurants, Wiley said.

Commissioners were supportive of the proposal, but questioned whether the facility can be paid for with all private money, instead of working with either Kennewick or regional public facilities districts on a public-private partnership.

A performing arts center could do better at the ballot box than the 2013 failed regional district vote on an aquatic center, Commissioner Tom Moak said.

“When I see the proposals that have failed in recent years; part of it is the education process that didn’t happen, part of it is people don’t think it benefits them,” he said.

But Wiley was concerned because state law would allow the public facilities district to own all of the facility, giving no authority to the arts groups which championed it and helped pay for it.

The regional district is still reeling from the aquatic center failure, often canceling meetings, said Justin Raffa, the task force’s membership chairman. And the Kennewick district is more concerned about expanding the Three Rivers Convention Center.

“This is our primary objective,” he said. “We’re not going to sit around for a PFD to decide that it’s approved.”

The port wants to protect itself from the possibility of transferring the land to the task force, only to have the task force sell it for another purpose. Port Executive Director Tim Arntzen said the agreement could call for the task force to raise 80 percent of the needed money for the performing arts center before the land is transferred, and include a reversionary clause allowing the port to take the property back if the arts center isn’t built.

Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom