A good first step toward our arts future

It has been said that when meeting an artist for the first time, you will almost certainly annoy them by asking, “But what do you do for a living?”

Likewise, contemplation of a new performing arts center

in downtown Winslow is sure to be nagged from the get-go, for better or worse, by considerations of money. A new community hall? Sounds neat, but how are you going to pay for it? Absent the sudden appearance of some deep-pocketed patrons, new and improved cultural buildings would seem destined to languish at the wrong end of the island’s litany of pressing public needs – schools, for instance.

And yet, there was something auspicious about this week’s presentation by the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council on opportunities for cultural facilities, as islanders ease into a more action-oriented phase of downtown planning. Like a seasoned thespian, our arts community showed a deft sense of timing. Bravo.

Briefly, for those who weren’t there: a BIAHC consultant on Monday unveiled the results of a months-long study on cultural wants and needs – the possibilities ranged from new performance halls to more gallery space to an “arts cafe.” Nearly two dozen organizations participated in the study, and together gave some good insight into the island’s robust cultural offerings. Twelve island organizations reported 263 public performances (theater, music, poetry and the like) with a total attendance of 34,440 in 2003-04; nine organizations offered more than 700 classes during that time. While demand for more performance and exhibit areas is said to be only moderate, rehearsal and arts instruction space is at a premium even today. And as our community grows, so too will the need for cultural venues of all sorts, it appears.

As a preferred location for a new cultural hall (whatever that might prove to be), the report touts the south edge of today’s “town square,” now a gravel parking area between the farmers market site and Winslow Mall’s back alleyway. And here lies the beauty of the report’s timing: the recent Winslow Tomorrow recommendations arrive at largely the same conclusion. While not endorsing the BIAHC vision specifically, the Winslow Tomorrow findings do support development of some type of community-oriented facilities there, likely atop a multi-story parking garage. Talk is cheap, certainly more so than a new public building; but this week’s report should spark a good discussion of what might be best to bundle with such a parking facility on a public campus that already includes City Hall, the Playhouse and the historical museum.

Consider: Winslow Tomorrow’s recommendations are

largely a matter of creating a regulatory framework within which private capital can do its thing and redevelop our downtown over time; yet the vacant space next to the town square is one site where the public can really put its stamp on the downtown of the future with a community facility.

No one should come away from Monday’s presentation thinking construction is imminent; nobody even knows what a community hall might entail, and there is always that nagging question of cost. But the very discussion should move Winslow Tomorrow forward, from “what we’d like to see” to “what we’re going to do.”

So, hats off...and thinking caps on.

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