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Posted: March 5, 2014 It Seems to Me: Save the State ... build the Confluence

The issue: Whether to renovate the State Theatre rather than build a new community arts center.

Ben Richgruber's view: Even an extensive renovation wouldn't create the amenities needed to attract more quality productions.

Remember the Sony Walkman, the portable tape player from the '80s?

It was amazing. You could actually walk down the street - no cords! - listening to the awesome new Michael Jackson or Madonna tape. You could create the mixtape for your summer vacation and listen on the go. I loved my Walkman, and had a rad collection of cassette tapes to choose from.

Then something happened - the CD. "It's a fad," some thought. "Nobody is going to pay for that fancy new thing, it's too expensive." But then Sony hopped on board and created the Discman ... and it was affordable. Soon all of the music fans wanted to listen to CDs. Musicians would only record on CDs, and producers and record companies moved almost exclusively to CDs.

Then it happened again with mini-discs, MP3s, and more.

The State Theatre is Eau Claire's Walkman. It was fantastic for a long time. In fact, you can still use it to hear some of your favorite '80s music. But the industry has changed. Local and touring shows are bigger and need more stage and backstage space. Performers need more amenities and services (because our competition already has them). Tour producers are creating a different type of content (lights, sound, staging, etc.), and the State Theatre cannot accommodate that new content. As time goes on, there continue to be fewer quality touring productions that can use the theatre.

Yes, we could spend millions to renovate the theatre as a performing arts venue, and we could probably spend less than the total cost of the Confluence arts center, but unless we are allowed to close Farwell Street to expand the stage, it wouldn't change the way the space works. Wouldn't that just be putting more money into our Walkman - a Walkman that will still only play tapes? The collaboration in the Confluence Project gives us the right building and the right business plan for success.

Some people point to the Mabel Tainter in Menomonie as an example of a successfully renovated theatre. I'll agree, the building is absolutely beautiful, but it's struggling as an arts center because the building doesn't properly serve the needs of the business inside. Operational improvements were sacrificed for historic preservation. Today, Mabel Tainter staff has been cut and the building is closed a majority of the year.

It's time to separate the theatre building (the tape player) from the theatre business (entertainment). The best way to preserve any historic building is to have a vibrant neighborhood and strong business base around it so any business inside that building can thrive. The Confluence Project would create that neighborhood.

Many developers and architects have toured the State Theatre building, and they all agree there can be a second life, a second life that can preserve its heritage without forcing it to be something it's not. It has evolved from a bus stop, a bowling alley, a restaurant and even a Moose Lodge. Surely it can evolve again.

The best chance to preserve the State Theatre building, as well as the many arts-related businesses it has helped create, is to choose growth. Choose the Confluence Project.

Richgruber is executive director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, which manages the State Theatre.

 

Courtesy of the Leader-Telegram

By Ben Richgruber

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